Stroked long, p.14
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       STROKED LONG, p.14

           Meghan Quinn
 

  “I will call you about our next meeting,” I say just as the doors ding and open.

  “Ruby,” he calls one last time but I’m instantly pressing the close door button, willing it to shut before he can stop the doors from closing.

  Lucky for me, he doesn’t catch up.

  Leaning my head against the elevator wall, I look up at the ceiling as tears fall down my cheeks. I had finally felt I was connecting with someone how I wanted to. I know he doesn’t adapt easily to new people in his life, but I had felt so much closer to him last night. Not only does he not see me that way, but he was very insistent he would never see me that way. Was that me or was that him? Right now, I think it is all me. He’d been horrified when he’d looked down and seen me in his bed. What was such a wonderful night has turned into one hell of a crappy morning. Not sure how to come back from this one.

  Chapter Ten

  BODI

  Fuck.

  FUCK!

  A slow clap starts up behind me as I lock up my apartment door. “Well done, asshole. I’m really impressed. Not only did you insult her, you most likely jabbed her in the heart with your perfectly sharpened knife. And then, you didn’t even chase after her.”

  “Shut the fuck up, Eva,” I snap, unsure what to do.

  This is all new to me. Every last second of it. I’ve been intimate with women. I’ve had sex but it’s always been physical, just something to do. I’ve never once been emotionally intimate with someone until Ruby came along.

  Last night, fuck, it was so unexpected. I was very apprehensive at first, not sure if I would be able to handle having her in my condo while I went through my nighttime routine, but instead of her following me around, watching me double-check everything, she tended to herself in the bathroom, giving me just enough time to get my anxiety on an even keel so I could act normal around her.

  As if normal is easy for me around her. There is no normal, really. I’m a ball of nerves whenever she’s in the room, always wondering if I’m going to show my true self, the battered man that I am. I’m calculating every one of my moves, preparing myself for the worst, making sure I’m always on guard, never once letting one of my idiosyncrasies slip. It’s tiring and last night, being with her for so long, I was just waiting for that moment when I let down my guard, where I slip up and freak the fuck out over something so minute and small that any other person would think I was losing my goddamn mind.

  But it never happened. I never lost control. It was quite the opposite. I was able to relax and enjoy myself. I felt free, liberated, as if I’m not hiding this dark secret, this all-consuming hatred for myself and every obsessive-compulsive trait I possess.

  This morning, waking up to her in my arms—which astounded me as I have no recollection of moving closer to her during the night—fuck it was priceless, a feeling I would never be able to get again. Her body was warm, welcoming, trusting, addicting. From the press of her ass against my stomach to the sweet smell of her hair, she doesn’t make me feel afraid. She puts me at ease, makes my heart even its erratic behavior.

  I’m a total fuck-up.

  Gripping my hair, I sit on the couch and rest my elbows on my knees, facing total defeat.

  The couch dips next to me. “What’s going on, Bodi?”

  Twisting my head just enough so I can see my sister—whose timing was epically bad—I say, “You should have called.”

  She sighs. “Bodi, you know I don’t call all the time. You can’t rely on a phone call all the time. You have to know the people who are entering your condo are the people you trust. And I love you, Bodi, but you can’t blame this on me. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought you muffins in the morning.”

  “I know.” Fuck I’m so aggravated and at a loss right now. “I just, fuck, I just got caught off guard with everything.”

  “Want to start from the beginning?”

  “Not really.”

  “Can I ask you something and you not get all brotherly mad and irritated at me?” I know what her question is going to be so I nod. “Do you like her, Bodi?”

  I don’t even have to think about it, and there is no way I can hide it anymore. She’s flipped my entire process, my tightly controlled world, upside down. “I do.”

  A little, and I mean little, giddy squeal comes from Eva, who then quickly calms herself. I’m waiting for the “I told you so” but apparently she has gained some self-control and holds back. “Does she know?”

  “Obviously not after what transpired this morning.” Leaning back on the sofa, slouching in my seat, I grip my forehead out of pure hatred for myself. “She’s more than just a coworker to me, Eva. She’s a friend, someone I feel comfortable talking to, someone I trust. But she doesn’t fucking know that because I was so flustered and out of my mind this morning I flipped and made an ass of myself.”

  “You sure did.” She doesn’t sugarcoat it as she crosses her legs and sips her coffee. “I mean, you really did a number this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so disastrous in person. It was quite impressive.”

  “Will you shut the fuck up? Christ, Eva.”

  That garners a laugh from her. “Come on, you have to kind of laugh about it, Bodi. You can’t go about your life so serious all the time.”

  “How the fuck do you expect me to laugh about this? I hurt Ruby, and I didn’t mean to. She sprinted out of here, never making eye contact. It’s gutting me that I did that to her. So you can’t blame me for not being in a laughing kind of mood.”

  “I can understand that, but this is fixable, Bodi.”

  “How so? She barely tolerates me as it is. This was probably the final nail in the coffin for me.”

  “She doesn’t barely tolerate you, Bodi. If she barely tolerated you she wouldn’t have stayed last night.”

  “She didn’t have an option last night. The roads were flooded. Fuck, Eva. Almost every time I’ve been around the girl I’ve been on the verge of having an episode, of freaking out about something, and she notices. There’s no hiding it when I’m around her. She knows I’m not normal—”

  “No one is fucking normal, Bodi, so stop using that as an excuse.”

  “Don’t give me that shit, Eva. You know what I mean when I say normal. Someone who can live comfortably in their house without obsessively cleaning and checking everything to make sure it’s all in place. Someone who can have a thoughtful conversation with another human being without constantly trying to remember social cues. Someone who doesn’t have to live so rigidly by a day-to-day structure.”

  “We all do that. We all possess those behaviors, but it just depends on how extreme they are in each case. Do you think it’s easy for me to carry on a conversation with strangers at an art showing and explain why I always have a heavy hand when using the color red? I have the same issues as you, Bodi. I’ve just put myself out there more. You’re still living in this dark hole—”

  “You weren’t the one who fucking killed them,” I shout. “It’s easier for you to move on.”

  “You did not kill our parents, Bodi. You were not the psychopath with a gun. No matter whether the door was locked or not, he would have found a way in.” She has told me this over and over, but it isn’t true. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.

  “Yeah, and I gave him a golden ticket to our parents’ room.”

  Eva stands and shakes her head. “I can’t keep fucking doing this with you. When are you ever going to forgive yourself for what happened?”

  “Never,” I say softly, shutting my eyes to ward off the tears that threaten to spill over.

  Releasing a long exhale, Eva picks up her purse and plops the box of muffins on my lap. “Have a good day off, Bodi. I will talk to you later.”

  Fuck. Now I’ve upset Eva. Have a good day off. As if I could have a fucking good day. Fuck. Me. I feel so desperate, so unsure. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do with the grief of my parents’ death. No, I can never forgive myself. I don’t know
what to do about Ruby. Rubes. I’ll never get to call her that again. I’m a fucking asshole just like Eva said.

  Clenching my eyes shut, I call after her just before she reaches the door. In a near whisper, I ask, “What do I do about Ruby?”

  “What do you want to do about her? Do you actually want to live the life you’ve been blessed with or do you want to continue to throw it away?”

  Not wanting to get all philosophical with her, I say, “I want to make sure her feelings aren’t hurt. I want to apologize.”

  “Well then, apologize.”

  “It’s not that easy for me. Please, Eva.”

  Those two little words said in my rough, regretful voice has her turning around and sitting back down on the couch.

  “You’re not being fair. You know I can’t walk out on you when you’re like this.”

  Through my hands, I tilt my head to look at her. I know I look like a ragged fuck right now, a desperate man, and that’s why I’m hoping she will school me in apologies. I’m not an idiot, I know how to say sorry, but not in this kind of context to a woman I’m actually interested in.

  “What do you want to accomplish with this apology?”

  “Shit, I don’t know.” I rub my head and open the muffin box. The bran and wheat smell is overpowering. I must be the only one who enjoys it. “I want her to not be mad at me. I want her to talk to me, to maybe be my friend.”

  “Do you want anything more than that?”

  “Of course I do.” I bite into a muffin, not really enjoying it, but if I don’t eat something my metabolism is going to eat my own damn stomach. “But there are so many complications that come with extending any kind of relationship with Ruby beyond friendship. I have so much fucking baggage, Eva, and I don’t think she would be willing to stick around when she sees it all. And fuck, I’m awkward.”

  “She is aware.”

  “She is?” My head snaps up. “She told you I was awkward?” Shit, that’s embarrassing. Like I do with all people apart from Coach, Eva, and Lauren, I have developed an effective and practiced façade of cool and calm. And with Ruby, I’ve tried even harder so she doesn’t see me as some awkward piece of crap who doesn’t know how to talk to a girl.

  “No.” Eva chuckles, not helping the rapid increase of my heartbeat. “But she’s been around you long enough to know you’re awkward. Come on, you were awkward at the coffee house. I know you try hard not to be, but there are times you show it and that’s okay. It’s endearing, makes you seem human and not like some uptight Olympian who has no desire to talk to anyone.”

  “Does she think that of me?”

  “NO!” Eva answers, exasperated. “I will not be your little messenger. If you want to find out how she feels about you, then you’re going to have to ask her yourself.” Holy. Fuck. No.

  “Yeah, I can’t do that.” I rub my palms on my pants. “I’m a pussy, I know, but I have to work this slowly. Baby steps. It’s all new to me, outside my comfort zone, so I think I’m going to tell her I want to be friends.”

  “Aww, something every girl wants to hear,” Eva says sarcastically.

  “Come on, Eva.”

  Placing her hand on mine, she smiles up at me. “You know I’m kidding. I think that’s a good idea. Friends first . . . lovers later.”

  “Don’t say lovers.” I laugh.

  “Aww, that makes my heart feel better, hearing that laugh of yours. She’s working at the club today; I say you pay her a little visit.”

  “This isn’t going to be easy, is it?” I ask, already starting to feel the nerves rolling around.

  “For you, no, but I’m pretty sure Ruby will let you off easy. She’s cool like that.”

  “Yeah.” I exhale. “She’s pretty damn cool.”

  ***

  My palms are sweaty; my anxiety is at an all-time high; and I’m so fucking nervous I’m two seconds from retreating. I’m sitting in the classroom next to the one Ruby teaches in, leaning against some cabinets while holding a bouquet of daisies—Eva’s idea. One of the girls who works at the club is pulling Ruby out of the classroom right now and what should be a two-minute task seems like an hour as I wait impatiently, running my apology over and over in my head.

  Just as I’m about to give up and leave, the door to the classroom opens and Ruby enters, looking confused and asking, “What’s going on?” over her shoulder. When she turns toward me, her face falls and her cheeks redden. Shit. She doesn’t look happy. Is she embarrassed?

  From behind, the girl who helped me shuts the door, giving us complete privacy.

  “Hey,” I say lamely.

  Looking around, Ruby asks, “Um, can I help you with something, Bodi?” She’s being professional. I have to hand it to her; she’s much stronger than I am.

  Extending the flowers out to her like a robot, I say, “I got you flowers.”

  A little finesse, Bodi. Christ.

  She doesn’t move so I realize I have to make a better attempt at this apology. I can’t be Robot-Bodi; I need to use my feelings. I sound like Eva.

  Stepping forward, I hand her the flowers, and she graciously takes them. What I think is going to warm her up, only confuses her even more. Her brow is furrowing.

  Sticking my hands in my pockets, I shift in place and take a deep breath. “I was an ass this morning. I know you heard what I said to Eva, and I want you to know I didn’t mean any of it.”

  “Bodi, you don’t need to explain,” Ruby cuts in. “We’re colleagues, I get it. Last night I overstepped your boundaries and asked too much. I apologize and promise it won’t happen again. From now on, we act strictly professional toward one another.”

  Fuck that and fuck me. This is not the same Ruby I’ve grown to know. Like. Feel safe around. There isn’t a spark in her eye, a smirk to her pouty lips, or energy in her beautiful voice. She’s lacking her sparkle, and it’s slowly splintering me in half. Because I caused this.

  “I don’t want that,” I say honestly. “You are more than someone I work with, Ruby.” I grab the back of my neck, feeling unsure of my footing, and then choose to speak to her honestly. “I’m not good with this kind of stuff, and I really have no experience, but you make me want to try. Maybe we can be friends.”

  “Friends?” There is a slight twitch of her lips that makes me think my Ruby is coming back.

  My Ruby? Shit.

  “Yeah, friends. I, uh . . .” I clear my throat and look her in the eyes. “I like talking to you. And even though you try to get me to eat sweets, I like hanging out with you as well. You make my days fun.”

  Now there is a full-on, mega-watt smile gracing her beautiful face. The flowers in her hand are now pressed against her chest in a hug, and she’s moving toward me.

  “I would love to be friends with you, Bodi.” Opening her arms, she steps into my space and pulls me into a hug. Her face rests against my chest, and smelling the sweet scent of her shampoo instantly puts me at ease.

  Wanting to reciprocate the affection, I wrap my arms around her and pull her small body closer into mine. That’s bullshit. I want to hold her because I like holding her. Not because I want to reciprocate. “I’m sorry for being an ass this morning, Ruby. Sometimes I react before stopping to think. And poorly at that. I enjoyed last night.”

  “It’s okay, Bodi. I could see you were under duress.”

  “You don’t have to forgive me that easily.” I chuckle. Eva was right. I’m pretty sure Ruby will let you off easy. She’s cool like that. Yeah, she is cool like that.

  “Eh, what are friends for?” Pulling away, she fixes her hair and says, “As a friend, I have to ask, when do you leave for the Olympic trials? I need to know when I can come over to celebrate with Double Stuf Oreos.”

  I wouldn’t put it past her to do just that, although I could envision her doing so with party poppers, those annoying whistle things, and a bundle of balloons. It would be a bitch to clean up afterwards.

  “The day after tomorrow. And I’m not on the team yet
so don’t get too excited.”

  “Please.” She pushes my shoulder. “We both know you are a shoo-in. Which means, I will be buying some Double Stuf Oreos and when you return, we shall cheers our Oreos and celebrate, because you will celebrate with me, won’t you?”

  She stares up at me with her big brown eyes, making my chest tight. I would pretty much give this girl anything she wants right about now, not just because of how beautiful she is, but because of how she makes me feel. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to enjoy someone else’s company or laugh, or even joke around, and the mere fact that Ruby has been able to achieve that so easily lets me know I need to keep her around.

  There is something about her I can’t let go.

  Pushing my hands back in my pockets and rocking on my heels, I answer, “Of course I will celebrate with you.”

  “Yes,” she cheers, throwing some fake guns my way and spinning in a circle.

  So strange, yet, so fucking adorable.

  Chapter Eleven

  RUBY

  “Are you really coming over, or is this one of those things you say you’re going to do but then you end up calling me five minutes before you’re supposed to arrive and tell me you decided to board a plane to Bora Bora instead?”

  “That happened once. It was a hell of a deal, and I couldn’t pass it up,” my friend Andrea says into the phone. “I promise, I’m coming over.”

  “Good, because I’m not going to go all out and make red, white, and blue Jell-O just so I can sit on my couch and eat it by myself while watching the Olympic trials on TV.”

  “Oh please, don’t act like you haven’t done that before. I specifically remember in college you taking down an entire box of those Lofthouse frosted cookies in one sitting.”

  Those cookies are deathly addictive. I had to do step aerobics for five days straight afterward to make myself not feel so chunky.

 
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