He disappeared. Well, it seemed like it. She knew he was probably somewhere in Cambridge living his life as usual, going to his office and back to wherever he lived in Central Square. But there was no word from him, no confirmation of the fact that he really was thinking about her. That he wanted to talk to her again. No email. Nothing on Facebook. Not even a phone call. Not that she had given him her number. But it couldn’t be that difficult to find it if he wanted to contact her.
Lizzie spent a week talking herself in and out of all sorts of possibilities. She idled over Facebook and Google looking at whatever the name Ben Cottingham yielded. Nothing proved anything. She saw no evidence that he was married. He wasn’t gay. She knew that for sure. She didn’t know why he left without goodbye. Or why he hadn’t bothered to make any contact since. Was he going to wait another six weeks and show up spontaneously with a bottle of wine to check on her ankle? Was she going to wait another six weeks for him?
She wanted to see him. She didn’t want to send a message across Facebook and not be able to see the expression when he saw her name in his inbox. She wanted to catch him in the moment and see if he was glad to see her. Or if he had an impulse to run away. She couldn’t just keep hoping for another sudden appearance. She wasn’t running any races in the near future. She thought briefly about finding one and posting it on Facebook to lure him with another update. She didn’t want to resort to deceit… not yet. She knew he lived somewhere close to the Charles River. She could at least run there and hope that whatever led him to walk a few blocks from his house on a Saturday afternoon would lead him to cross her path again. Maybe. It was a stretch, but it would be good exercise… for her ankle.
She directed herself towards the Harvard Footbridge. With each step, she let her mind go back and replay the night in her apartment over and over. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Then he said he tried not to… to what? To see her? To obsess about her? To bring a bottle of wine to her apartment? To seduce her? To stay away? What did he mean? If he wanted to stay away, why did he show up after saying he couldn’t come to dinner? Why didn’t he stay away?
Why didn’t he contact her? He knew how to find her. He knew where she lived. He knew she was on Facebook. Was he still trying to talk himself out of whatever it was that he was trying not to do? Maybe it was Sara. Maybe he didn’t want to go back down that road to Springs. Who could blame him? He had a successful business in Boston. He didn’t need to look back.
She turned around at the Harvard Bridge and headed back towards the train. Maybe she wouldn’t see him. She would have to email him. She wasn’t going to allow another week to pass without giving herself the opportunity to ask him these questions she asked herself over and over. Never mind her own question. If it was a real possibility, would she stay? Or would she find a reason to run away?
She passed the Mass Ave. Bridge when she saw him. She didn’t see his face, but she knew it was him. He was walking away from her, at a pretty brisk pace. She increased her run to a sprint and then slowed when she was a few feet from him. As if sensing her, he turned suddenly and gave her the reaction she hoped to see. He smiled.
“Hey Ben,” she took out her earphones.
“Elizabeth,” he responded. “I see your ankle is doing very well.”
“It is,” she felt the runner’s high release her grin without any effort.
She saw the breeze ruffle his short hair. He closed his eyes for a brief second as if collecting a thought. He stepped back from her and looked down the river. “I’m glad to see you,” he finally looked back at her.
“Me too,” she was confused by his look and increased distance. The oxygen drain from her head often impaired her perception. She felt the endorphin rush fuel her confidence. “Maybe we could get dinner some time?”
Ben looked down the river a second time. “Lizzie,” he startled her with her nickname.
She felt the coolness enter her brain. There was something holding him back. Damn it. She didn’t care. “I feel badly that you showed up and there was no dinner last week. I also appreciate your attention to my ankle. Whatever you did made it feel much better. You don’t know how much that meant to me,” she smiled.
He looked at her intently. She sensed the urge she felt at the top of the stairs when he brought her home. She wanted to go towards him and pull him into her kiss. She was about to take a step when he lifted his hand and ran his fingers through his hair. He moved his face back towards the water, but she could tell he was still looking at her. She knew he desired her. She knew that much was true. If that was all… if she was to him just what Eric was to her… maybe… maybe that would be okay.
“I saw that you are going to see Jack’s band next weekend,” he turned back to face her.
“What?” Lizzie was surprised by the fact he knew that. Facebook. “Oh yeah. Yeah, on Friday.”
“I’d like to see the band. And go with you,” he smiled. “I’ll drive.”
“I’d enjoy your company,” he returned his smile to the one she saw at the beginning of the conversation.
“Okay,” Lizzie nodded. “Pick me up at… seven? That should get us there by 8. Jack’s band goes on at 10. The opening band is pretty decent, too.”
“Sounds good,” the strain returned to his face. “Listen, I have to get to an appointment. I’ll see you on Friday.”
“Yeah,” Lizzie nodded and put her earphones in to stop herself from lunging at him. She picked up her feet and ran back to the train. She was elated and confused. She didn’t understand his restraint. There was honesty in his reaction. She knew in spite of whatever he was hiding, he was happy to see her.
Lizzie decided on jeans and a sleeveless shirt. She told herself she wouldn’t care so much, but she changed her outfit several times and would have continued to be indecisive if the doorbell didn’t ring. She let Meg answer it, knowing she was eager to meet the guy who made Lizzie blush. Lizzie didn’t tell Meg or Nora about Ben’s mysterious behavior, but figured the observation of one of them might help with some perspective.
“Hi Ben,” Lizzie came into the living room.
“Hi,” Ben turned around and grinned at her. Lizzie saw Meg’s nod of approval over his shoulder and rested her gaze on Ben’s friendly eyes.
“You’ve met Meg,” Lizzie felt her whole body lighten.
“She was just telling me about her thesis,” Ben made a strange smile. Lizzie couldn’t tell if it was amusement, approval, or the attempt to curb himself from laughing outright. Lizzie noticed all the books spread on the table and realized how the topic probably came up.
“He actually recommended a couple books I have never heard of,” Meg explained her enthusiasm.
“That’s impressive,” Lizzie warmed at the fact that he was in her living room, talking with her best friend, and still looking at her with admiration. “I didn’t know you were a fan of gothic literature.”
“I’ve had time to read a few genres.”
“Really?” Lizzie was surprised to hear a man who built and managed his own company spent time reading literature.
“Yes,” Ben came to her side and touched her elbow. “We should probably get going. Meg, it was wonderful to meet you.”
“The same,” Meg looked at Lizzie one more time before they went down the stairs.
Lizzie let him open the car door for her. Normally she hated that gesture. It was too old fashioned. With Ben it seemed charming, not patronizing. She watched him sit beside her. He looked tired. His skin was paler, making the freckles more pronounced under his eyes. He turned those eyes to her as he fastened his seat belt. The gray seemed to overtake the green. He looked… nervous. Lizzie knew she should say something, anything to start the conversation and stifle the oppressive silence that had overtaken the car. “Weather’s nice, huh?”
“It is a nice night.”
“The moon is supposed to be full, I think,” Lizzie felt like a dork. Was she trying to sound too desperate for a story out of a romance novel?
“It’s the perfect temperature. Not too warm, not too cold,” he started the ignition.
“The way May is supposed to be.”
“I don’t expect anything of May weather. It’s always different. Sometimes hot. It’s even snowed.”
Lizzie tried to remember a May when it snowed. “Well, I brought a sweater just in case,” she was impatient with herself for her lame conversation.
“So, you’ve been to a lot of Jack’s gigs?”
“Yeah. I don’t know if you remember the band he tried to start in high school. Most of those guys moved away after college. Just Mike…” Lizzie paused, wondering if Ben remembered Mike from his friendship with Oliver. She didn’t want to remind him or remind herself of the conversation on the back deck of Jen and Jack’s house. Or the wordless fifteen minutes after. She wasn’t sure how much of her history she should reveal at this point, if ever. “Mike’s the drummer. Anyway, after Jack and Jen had Zach, they got serious and recruited some other musicians. They’ve been together for about ten years. I think they are pretty decent, even if I’m family. “
“It’s good to see he is still devoted to it. I remember his love of guitar back in high school.”
“Yeah. Jen really supports him. Have you met his wife?”
“They got married real young,” Lizzie knew she was talking a lot, but couldn’t think how else to fill the silence. “They thought she was pregnant. She was. She lost it, but they were engaged and decided to elope anyway. Two years later, they had Zach. They have a daughter, Izzie, who is three.”
“Sounds like a happy family.”
“You know, I think they are soul mates. They were probably married in their last life, too.”
“You believe in that stuff? Reincarnation?”
“I think so. I mean… I really don’t KNOW. I don’t necessarily know that any of it is THE answer. But, yeah, it’s nice to think we come back here eventually. I would like to see another century. See what new gadgets teenagers have two hundred years from now,” Lizzie laughed at herself.
“But you wouldn’t be you?”
“I don’t know how it works, Ben. You probably think it’s all… silly.”
“I like what you said about not knowing THE answer.”
“So you’re not an atheist?”
“Did you think I was an atheist?”
“I guess I did. Are you?”
“Hm,” Lizzie looked to the cars they passed on the Pike.
“You were pretty religious in high school,” Ben commented.
“I was a good little Catholic girl from a small town,” Lizzie kept looking at the blurred cars. “I am definitely not that now.”
“You live in a suburb.”
“I’m no longer Catholic… and I’m definitely not good.”
“I don’t think we’d be in this car right now if either one of us thought I was good.”
Ben pursed his lips together and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. Lizzie knew she hit some sort of nerve. She couldn’t tell if it was his sin or hers that caused his immediate tensing. He took a deep breath and relaxed his arms. “Do you really think that makes you a bad person?”
“Well…” Lizzie faded her voice. If he did have a wife or girlfriend, obviously what they did together did make her a bad person. She still wasn’t ready to ask him that question. “Sometimes it does.”
“To do something that makes you feel good?”
“It’s not the physical act,” Lizzie argued. She couldn’t believe the conversation about weather shifted to sex before they got beyond 495. “But the motivation.”
“The motivation?” he glanced at her.
“I slept with Mike – Jack’s drummer.” Lizzie spoke before stopping her whim for honesty. “He has a girlfriend. I knew that. But I went ahead and slept with him because he wanted me. Because it felt good knowing he would choose me when he had someone else. Because for so much of my life I didn’t feel wanted. I don’t love Mike. I didn’t do it out of love. I did it to make myself feel good for five minutes. It was stupid. It was cruel. And it was not good.”
Ben took in a breath. He clearly didn’t know what to say. He was stuck in the car with her, on the Mass Turnpike, with very little option to turn around and drive her back home. “That doesn’t make you a bad person, Elizabeth.”
“Yes, it does,” Lizzie looked down. She was doing a great job towards retaining his interest and sympathy. “That isn’t my only indiscretion. There have been a lot of indiscretions…” Lizzie faded off and found a question forming in her mind. Maybe she would ask it to cut to the chase and end it before her hopes got the better of her. “You know that I’m promiscuous. Is that why you are here?”
“What?” Ben shook his head as he switched lanes.
“Are you just taking me out tonight so you can get laid?”
“Well, I’m not going to deny that I have hopes for the end of this evening. I enjoy being with you, Elizabeth. In your bed. And sitting in this car right now. I …” he faded his conversation off to another gaze. “I think you are beautiful and funny and smart. I think you are good. We all make mistakes. We all do things to hurt other people – most often because we feel hurt. I certainly can’t point my finger at you. I don’t think less of you for what you’ve done. I don’t think any less of your ultimate goodness. You spend every day helping to raise money for a hospital. You are a devoted friend. You show appreciation to those who help you… and you obviously care enough to let it bother you enough to confess it to me.”
Lizzie looked at Ben, who kept his gaze at the left lane of the highway. She felt the anger and apprehension she had about his character dissolve. “You really think I’m good?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Even when half of the time we’ve spent together has been in a bedroom?” Lizzie couldn’t believe she said it.
“You are good in the bedroom,” he turned his attention away from the road long enough to smile. Lizzie met his smile and breathed in deeply and confidently. He looked back to the road, still grinning mischievously.
She let silence slip into the car between the next two exits. It wasn’t that uncomfortable silence of uncertainty. It was a mutual comfort with one another’s company. Like she had known him for a long time and such silences were perfectly acceptable parts of the routine. She had known him for a long while, much longer than she knew Nora and Meg. And yet there was still so much mystery.
“I don’t remember you being an athlete,” she broke the silence after fifteen minutes. Her thoughts didn’t venture far from his last comment.
“In high school? I wasn’t,” he laughed.
“But… you look like an athlete. Even in the yearbook pictures, you have the same… well I didn’t really notice it then. But…”
“You were looking at our yearbook?”
“A few months back – at Sara’s… she had an awful spiral perm. I was really unattractive,” Lizzie wanted to eat her words again, wondering if she hit a sore spot with mention of Sara.
“You weren’t unattractive,” he answered without a pause at Sara’s name.
“Your hair was longer… but not much else,” Lizzie looked at him without fear. “But I don’t remember you being athletic.”
“I told you, I wasn’t.”
“Then where does the muscle come from? Heavy duty mouse clicking?”
“We did a lot of work around the house back then. I guess that’s…” he let his eyes look at her and then back to the road. “Now I go to the gym.”
“That’s not fair. I work so hard to …”
“Females have to work harder.”
“I know a few men who would hate you, too.”
“They probably have a better appreciation for beer than I do,” Ben started switching lanes towards the exit. “You don’t hate me?”
“I’ve thought about it,” Lizzie said lightly, albeit very honestly.
“You like running though,” he showed a little confusion.
“I do. It took me a while, but once I discovered that runner’s high, it got a whole lot easier to drag myself out of bed every morning.”
“Endorphins,” Ben smiled a different grin.
“You’re not an athlete and you grin over endorphins?”
“I wouldn’t know what to do with a baseball if it was flying straight toward me.”
“Your brother was on the baseball team, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, I thought I remember that… or maybe that was someone else’s brother.”
“I don’t think Oliver played sports either.”
“Too busy working around the house?”
“I guess so. I don’t remember,” he turned off the ramp onto the main road.
“It’s just after the next light,” Lizzie offered. “Not a bad place. Pretty decent crowds – and far enough from the colleges so it isn’t a bunch of frat boys.”
Ben followed her directions and parked the car in front of the restaurant. Lizzie decided to put her sweater on when she got out of the car. She felt an arm around her waist turn her. Ben pulled her close and kissed her suddenly and passionately. Lizzie had to pull herself back to get some air. “We have to go in,” she looked away from his eyes so he wouldn’t continue and tempt her to go back into the car. He slipped his arm around her back and led her into the restaurant.
“So what gives, Lizzie? Are you dating Ben?” Jack muttered the moment Ben got up to buy the next round.
“I don’t know,” Lizzie saw Ben’s gaze as he waited for the bartender. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
“He’s cute,” Jen smiled. “Jack said he’s an engineer or something.”
“Computers,” Lizzie forced herself to look at Jen.
“Isn’t he the one that followed Sara around all the time?” Jen asked. “I always imagined some nerdy, scrawny kid with broken glasses.”
“He wasn’t scrawny. And I think I wore the broken glasses,” Lizzie laughed. “Besides, everyone liked Sara. Even this one.”
Jack finished his glass of whiskey. “I was 14 and hormonal.”
“It’s okay, Jack,” Jen laughed. “I liked Drew Armstrong. He was a beautiful boy, but cocky as shit. Turned out he was gay.”
“I’ve often wondered if Sara was a repressed lesbian,” Lizzie said flippantly. “It might explain all the Jesus love.”
“Don’t give him any ideas, Lizzie. You know he’s imagining very bad things right now,” Jen laughed.
“It might give you something to look forward to,” Jack pinched his wife’s side.
“Isn’t your break over?” Jen sniveled and then kissed him on the lips. Lizzie glanced back up at Ben’s constant gaze. She felt her own smile creep across her cheeks.
“I’m going to hit the loo before you start,” Lizzie excused herself, but Jen decided to follow her.
“He is really nice, Lizzie,” Jen stood over the sink in the bathroom, dodging the crowded line behind them. “It’s obvious he is really into you.”
“Yeah… you don’t?”
“I… we’ve had a couple great nights. Then weeks go by without… anything.”
“I imagine he’s a little scared. If he was in love with your best friend as a teenager that might bring some stuff up.”
“Great,” Lizzie peered into the reflection of the mirror. “I don’t want… I don’t want to be his choice because he’s been carrying a torch for Sara all these years.”
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Jen looked at her own reflection. “Didn’t you like someone in high school?”
“Yeah… but I never really thought I had a chance. You know, Jen. I have a self-defeating attitude towards men. I don’t ever pick the ones who like me back as much as I like them.”
“I think he likes you back, Lizzie,” Jen sighed. “Maybe you are the one who is still hung up on Sara.”
“I didn’t say she was a lesbian because I had a crush on her.”
“No… but you were in her shadow. Her pretty, perfect shadow. That’s a tough shadow to leave. Even after running for two years.”
“I’ve been in a lot of those shadows.”
“Did you ever think that maybe he liked you?” Jen turned away from the mirror. “Maybe the Sara thing was just an excuse to be around you.”
“Not likely,” Lizzie could still see the reflection of her frumpier self in the mirror.
“Would you have given him the time of day if he did?” Jen had a direct approach much like Nora’s.
“You know what’s funny? I used to be in a club with his brother,” Lizzie remembered the thought as she spoke it. “We had a lot of fun together. Oliver made me laugh. I thought for a little while that he liked me. But he was two years ahead of us… and he had a girlfriend. I decided it was just my imagination.”
“Maybe Oliver paid attention to you because he knew his brother was secretly pining for you,” Jen winked as the bass vibrated through the bathroom door.
“Secretly pining?” Lizzie laughed as they edged towards the door. “For Sara’s less attractive friend?”
“You know Lizzie, you didn’t just suddenly become beautiful,” Jen paused before opening the door. “You lost weight, but you have always had beauty. It’s just when you got thinner, you decided to believe it.”
Lizzie looked at Jen but lacked the wit to retaliate. She pulled open the door and went back out to where Ben was waiting for her.
Lizzie looked down at Ben as her heart rhythm slowed. She breathed in deeply and dropped her chest onto his. She kissed him passionately once more and slid down against the mattress, not removing her glance from the green gray eyes that followed her movement. Her heart was still accelerated and her every nerve enlivened. She felt her limbs itch with the energy to run several miles, but she had no desire to leave the spot where she lay opposite him, staring into those gray green eyes.
He moved a hair that fell from her temple across her nose. The touch of his fingers against her face thrilled her smile to a broader width. She didn’t know when the last time was that she felt so content, so elated, so glad to be in a moment. She wanted to hold onto it… but not by herself. She felt the hope and adrenalin of risk rise to her throat. She kissed him again and narrowed her eyes as she pulled away. “Ben.”
He rested his palm against her scalp and slowly caressed down the length of her hair. “Elizabeth,” the breath of his voice was still close to her lips.
She rolled onto her back to leave the temptation of another kiss and excuse to abandon what she was daring herself to say. “What I said about being good before,” she looked up at the stripes of her blinds silhouetted by the street light. “I was telling the truth. I have been a pretty heartless whore the past several months.”
“Elizabeth,” he said her name again as he draped an affectionate arm across her breasts and rested his chin inside the curve of her shoulder.
“I…” she felt his kiss against her neck. It made her nerves tingle, as though each one were an electric charge. She instinctively arched her head, making it easier for his seduction. He eased his arm back so one palm landed on her exposed breast. Lizzie leaned into him but moved her motivation back into her head. “Ben,” she whispered. He moved away from her neck and lifted his eyes that burned with an intensity she never saw before. He kissed her lips briefly until she closed her mouth and stopped reacting. She lifted her hands and held them against his temples.
“I don’t think you are a whore,” his concentrated stare said with determination.
“I know,” she smoothed along his hair and cupped her hands at the base of his skull. “I know what I did and why I made the choices I made. I was running away from something. From myself. When I’m with you, I’m not running away. I feel like I am running to something I want. I want to be here. I want to be myself here.”
Lizzie took in a deep breath and felt the weight of his hand as her chest rose and fell. She dropped her hands from the back of his head and let him relax back onto his elbow. He moved his hand from her breast and gently traced down the length of her torso with his finger. He stopped at her pelvic bone and retraced his finger back between her breasts, all the way along her neck to the base of her chin. He paused, turning his fiery eyes back to her neck. Then he fell back against the pillow and let silence fill the room.
Lizzie heard a car pass on the street below. She didn’t want to be distracted by the outside world. It was as if the spell were breaking. The longer the pause after her confession, the less warmth she felt inside and out. She didn’t want to lose that warmth. She didn’t want to lose that chance to be with someone now that she had finally decided to be honest. “I want you to stay, Ben,” she made one last attempt. “Stay with me through the morning.”
He shifted his position again and leaned over to kiss her. “I want to stay,” he looked at her. “I want to be the one you run to. I want you, more than you know.”
Lizzie let her next breath plunge all the way to where he dragged his finger. As her chest rose, his palm found her breast again, followed soon after by his mouth. She let the conversation fade as he revitalized the sensation of her nerves and skin. She allowed the hope to enter her mind that he would be there through the morning. That he wanted her more than she knew.
When she woke up the next morning, he was gone.