Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 13

Did Things Change?

GRACE

Matt and I slept a total of twenty minutes before his alarm buzzed. After turning it off, he rolled over on top of me, our naked bodies pressed together. My hands went into his hair as he sank down and took my nipple into his mouth, grazing lightly with his teeth and tongue. The room was still completely dark but totally charged with electricity. “Are you sore?” he whispered.

“No.” I wanted Matt everywhere . . . again. I fully expected some residual pain or blood or a nightmarish reminder that a few short hours before, I had been a virgin. But there was nothing, just two insatiable, hungry young people aching for each other.

He moved back up to my neck and kissed and sucked from the hollow up to my ear. I was panting, and the two days of growth on his face tickled my neck in the most exquisite way. I could feel him hard and hot against my thigh as he pressed his body into mine. “Ahhh, Matt.”

“I love that sound.”

His voice near my ear shot jolts down my legs. My whole body quivered. There was no stopping us at that point. The intensity left me totally breathless. Our bodies were a blur, gripping, tugging, kissing, sucking, moving up and down, rolling over and back, every motion somehow perfectly fluid on Matt’s tiny twin bed. He pulled me on top to straddle him. “Like this,” he said, and then he lifted my hips and guided himself inside of me. I arched my back, pressing my hands against his taut stomach.

I could hear my tiny mewling sounds mixed with the deep, quiet, satisfied sounds rumbling from his chest.

“Do you feel it? Do you feel it, Matt?” I started moving faster.

“Yes, baby,” he said, his voice strained. His eyes were drowsy with desire and his lips slightly parted.

I moved harder against him and then leaned back, putting my hands behind me on the tops of his thighs, making the friction even more intense. He pressed his thumb to the bundle of nerves right above where we were connected. His small, subtle movements shut the rest of the world out to me. The walls could have been crumbling, my cello could have been on fire in the corner, and I would have stayed right where I was until the very end, moving above Matt, our bodies connected.

When the quickening began, he gripped my waist and tensed. I felt my mouth fall open but no sound was coming out. I couldn’t breathe at that moment for fear that it would all go away. I closed my eyes and let go. It was strange; it wasn’t that I forgot that Matt was there—how could I?—but I had very little self-awareness and self-consciousness. It was like I forgot that I was there when the buildup began and the tingling waves of hot and cold shot through my body. Down below, the pulsing began, harder than it ever had before. Matt made a strangled sound from his chest.

The word “Yes” inched from my throat, almost painfully. It wasn’t triumphant, like you see in the movies. It was quiet. Euphoric.

One last thought ran through my head before I collapsed on top of Matt. I’ve got to get my hands on that book his mom gave to him.

Moments later, he stirred under me as I lay splayed over his body. He kissed the top of my head and took a deep breath.

“We have to go, huh?” I grumbled into the smattering of hair on his chest.

“Yeah, we better get going, although staying in bed with you all day and spending Christmas in New York doesn’t sound bad at all.”

“Won’t you miss Christmas with your family?”

His expression was inscrutable. “No.”

“No?”

“Seeing my mom, maybe. But I’m definitely not going to miss stuffy dinners with my obnoxious brother.”

“What happened that made you two so different?”

He rolled me over onto my back and pushed himself off the bed. “I just got lucky, I guess,” he said with an arrogant smile. “I’ve gotta take a shower.”

I stared at his glorious backside as he walked away. Even in the hazy early-morning light, I could see the fine, cut muscles of his back.

ON THE WAY to the airport, I fell asleep in the back of the cab with my head on Matt’s shoulder. “Wake up, baby. We’re here.” Matt looked at his watch. “Shit, we gotta hurry.”

He pulled his bag and my small rolling suitcase from the trunk. We sailed through the check-in line, and before I knew it, we were boarding the plane. I sat in the middle seat and Matt had the window. I was asleep on his shoulder again before we even took off.

About halfway through the flight, there was a little turbulence that woke me up. Matt was asleep with his headphones on. I made my way to the bathroom, and by the time I came back, Matt had ordered us both Bloody Marys. He looked up at me, eyes beaming, as I scooted in toward him.

“Gracie,” he said, handing me a plastic cup.

“Matthias,” I replied. There was a current of electricity in the air between us.

“I got you a double.”

“I’ve never had one before,” I said, buckling myself in. “But I’ll try anything once.”

I took a sip and was immediately surprised by how much I liked the spicy and salty tomato flavor. “You can’t even taste the alcohol.”

He laughed. “That’s the point.”

I turned my head to look Matt in the face. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his brownish black hair was sticking out in every direction. Somehow he still looked gloriously sexy. He took a sip, looked over at me, and grinned all the way up to his eyes. “Good, huh?” His voice was low and just rough enough to send shivers down my spine to the space between my legs.

“Uh-huh,” I said, breathlessly. I thought about what Matt and I had done hours before and what that meant for us . . . what that made us.

As if he could read my mind, his expression changed and his smile faded. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I was okay—happy, even, and bubbling with anticipation—but I still felt a tiny bit of trepidation. Why? My first time had been perfect—almost too good to be true. After hearing so many horror stories from girls in high school about how awkward, painful, and messy their first times were, how could I not memorialize what we had done? Every single moment with him had been amazing. He hadn’t pushed me and he’d been totally patient and respectful. He’d been gentle but in control, and then afterward he’d been sweet and attentive. All the thoughts and memories started swirling around in my head . . . the way his hands touched me under the covers of his tiny dorm-room bed . . . his mouth everywhere . . .

Matt watched as I stared, blankly. His eyes dropped down to my open mouth. He knew what I was thinking about. He blinked. “I love that mouth.”

Leaning in, I touched my lips to his, seeking comfort. We surrendered to the charged energy between us, almost like we were feeding it, trying to satisfy it. We kissed slowly and softly, our tongues dancing around, until I heard the unmistakable sound of an intentional throat-clearing. I looked over my shoulder to see the woman in the aisle seat, watching us intently. She seemed like a jovial southern woman, with lots of makeup and big, white-blonde hair.

Were we being rude twisting tongues in the cramped seats of an airplane? Probably, but I didn’t care. I was almost willing to strip naked right there, if Matt asked me to. I smiled at the lady. With a sort of wise “I get it” look, she smiled back and then rolled her eyes dismissively.

Matt looked worn out. He reached languidly for my hand and clutched it with his before resting his head back and closing his eyes. I reached for my drink from the tray table and sucked it down in three large gulps. It was delicious and the alcohol took effect almost immediately. I leaned against Matt’s shoulder again and fell asleep.

“I FORGOT TO ask, how are we getting to your mom’s?”

Matt reached for my purple suitcase off the luggage carousel. “She’s coming to get us.”

When we reached the curb outside of LAX, a maroon minivan pulled up. “That’s her.”

Matt slid the large door open and threw his arms out to his sides. “Mama!”

She beamed with happiness. “Matthias, I’ve missed you! Get in here, you two.”

“Mom, this is Grace,” Matt said. I stood by, nervously as he loaded the luggage into the back.

“I’ve heard so much about you, Grace. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Aletha.” She reached out and took my hand in hers. She had a subtle Greek accent and was small-boned, with exaggerated but beautiful features and the same perfect nose as Matt. Her dark hair was streaked through with gray, and she wore a long, thin scarf wrapped around her neck so many times that it looked like a high-necked sweater.

“Nice to meet you too, Aletha.”

Matt got into the front seat and I buckled up in the middle bench seat in the back. The third-row bench seat that was normally in minivans had been replaced with art supplies, including a large metal pottery wheel.

“Matthias, I just picked up that wheel in the back for pennies. I need you to set it up in The Louvre; it’s too heavy for me.”

“Of course, Mom.”

She shot a glance his way and smiled radiantly. “No more Mama? Is my son too old to call me Mama?”

“Mama,” Matt said in a squeaky baby voice.

“You silly boy.” There was an ease between them. I wished my mother and I had that kind of relationship.

“So, Grace, Matthias tells me you’re a musician?”

“Yes, I’m studying music.”

“The cello, is it?”

“Yes, but I can play other instruments, too. I’m just best at the cello.”

“Well, Matt’s father has a beautiful grand piano at his house. You must play for them while you’re there. It would be a shame for that instrument to live out its life as a piece of furniture.”

“I agree,” Matt chimed in.

“Maybe I will. I’ll have to think of something to play that they’ll like.” I wasn’t sure if I liked that idea, though. From what I knew of Matt’s family, they sounded judgmental toward artists of any sort.

A short while later, we pulled into a long, narrow driveway next to a small but charming Craftsman bungalow, with green wooden shingles and maroon-painted double-hung windows.

The front yard looked like an English garden of wild, waist-high plants but it was manicured enough so it appeared more enchanting than overgrown. The air was crisp but it was nowhere near as freezing as New York.

“This place is so neat,” I said, stepping onto the path.

“Now that my boys are big, I have a lot of time on my hands to putter around in the garden.” Aletha unlocked the front door, flanked by bronze mica sconces. “Come on, Grace, I’ll show you to your room. Matthias, please get the wheel, honey.” We stepped into the house as Matt ran back to the minivan.

I didn’t know what to expect. Was she going to give me the third degree or state the house rules? I felt terribly out of place and nervous. I stumbled into the guest room behind her, and she immediately opened the window to let in some fresh air—the same thing Matt did upon entering a room. They were so similar in their graceful movements, their easy temperaments. It made me wonder what traits Matt had gotten from his father, if any.

She came toward me and clutched my arms. My stomach dropped.

She smiled warmly, “No need to be nervous. I wanted a moment to tell you that Matthias seems so happy lately, and I imagine that has something to do with you.”

“Oh?” I tried to be cool.

“Well, I just want to say welcome to my home.”

I set down my suitcase and noticed that she had put Matt’s bag in the corner. “Thank you so much for having me, Aletha. I feel really lucky that Matt was able to bring me out here for the holidays.” I pointed to the double bed, covered in a floral quilt. “Is this where I’ll be sleeping?”

“Yes, I think you two will be comfortable here. Matthias loves this bed.”

I swallowed. You two. My eyeballs felt dry and pasty, as if I hadn’t blinked in a while. Maybe I hadn’t. Aletha laughed and then pulled me in for a hug. “Oh, Grace,” she said, “Sweet Grace. I wasn’t born yesterday.”

She left the room with me standing there, stunned. I plopped onto the bed, exhausted.

LATER THAT EVENING, after a long nap, Matt and I sat at the oak dining table while Aletha served us steaming bowls of hot, fragrant chicken soup.

“Have you spoken to Alexander?” she asked Matt after she brought the bowls to the table.

“No.”

She looked up from her soup and squinted over square spectacles balanced on the end of her nose. She looked incensed, but I didn’t know her well enough to tell for sure.

“I haven’t, Mom. Alex and I didn’t have a great talk the last time I saw him.”

She put her fork down, glanced at me, then back to Matt. “You’re brothers. You two were inseparable as boys. What’s happened to this family?” Her voice cracked.

Matt looked affronted before his expression softened. “I’ll talk to him, Mom.” He reached his hand out to her. She took it and kissed the back of it, then let him go. “It’s just that I can’t help but feel that people like Alex are holding us back as a species. He wears pink shorts and polo shirts, and he actually refers to himself as an Adonis.” Matt grinned.

I choked on a piece of chicken and couldn’t help but fall into a fit of laughter. Even Aletha couldn’t hold back. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she let loose boisterous guffaws, laughing so hard she couldn’t even take a breath. She managed to squeak out, “Hey! He’s my son.”

The mood instantly lightened. “It’s not your fault,” Matt said, still chuckling as we all caught our breaths.

“Oh, boy, Matthias. That’s the one thing you get from your father.”

“What’s that?” My interest suddenly piqued.

She smiled warmly. “He and his father are so lighthearted. They can’t be serious about anything for more than two minutes without turning it into a joke.”

“He’s not like that anymore,” Matt interrupted.

Aletha’s shoulders bounced with silent laughter. “Well, at least your father used to be that way.”

We finished our soup in the glow of pleasant conversation, then Matt stood from the table. “Mom, Thank you. This was delicious. Grace, you want to shower while I help my mom clean up?”

“Yes, okay. I can help, too.”

“Don’t be silly, Grace. We’ve got this.” Aletha walked over and patted her son on the shoulder.

Before I left the dining room, a wooden hutch full of photos caught my attention. Matt followed my gaze. There were various childhood pictures of Matt and Alex, as well as a slew of art projects, beaded lampshades, old cameras, handmade pottery pieces, and several black-and-white photos of a much younger Aletha, laughing joyously. “I took those when I was a kid,” Matt said.

“They’re amazing.” I stood to get a closer look and Matt followed. “She was like your first muse.”

I turned and looked up into his dark, squinting eyes. Everything froze for a moment. He looked at my mouth, slightly parted. He ran his fingertips down my cheek and the callused pads of his thumbs felt divine against my skin. I shivered.

“You’re my first muse, Grace.”

The music Orvin had taught me how to hear was back. The sounds rushed through my ears as Matt bent and kissed me tenderly on the lips.

MATT’S SIDE OF the bed was cold and empty when I woke up the next morning. I shuffled into the dining room to find Aletha sitting alone at the table, sipping coffee and intermittingly spooning globs of oatmeal from a wide bowl.

“Good morning, dear.”

“Good morning, Aletha. Did Matt leave?”

“Yes, he’s out running errands. He didn’t want to wake you. Oatmeal?”

“Just coffee for me, thanks.”

“Have a seat.” When she stood, I noticed she was wearing a paint-spackled apron and garden shoes. She noticed me scanning her attire.

“I was in the Louvre. That’s my art studio in back, more popularly known as a garage. I call it that because, hell, I want my artwork in the Louvre, and this is about as close as I’ll get. I can take you there after breakfast.” She went into the kitchen as I took a seat. I mindlessly began tracing a vein in the wood with my finger while I watched Matt’s mom search a high cabinet for a mug. Aletha seemed like someone whose soul was so at peace, like life was no longer a mystery to her.

“I’m nervous to meet Matt’s dad and his family,” I admitted, without thinking if she would take offense by my referring to them as his family.

Her movements stopped just for a second as she peered into the cabinet, balancing gracefully on her tippy toes. It was long enough for me to tell that my comment had jarred her.

“You’ll be fine,” she said, without looking over at me. When she returned to the dining room, she handed me a hand-thrown pottery mug full of black, thickly aromatic coffee. She was smiling. “Matt’s dad, Charles, was a lot like Matthias once.”

“Once?”

She pointed to the center of the table where a silver tray held a tiny metal pitcher of cream.

“Black is fine for me,” I answered her unspoken question.

She sat down on the other side of the table, leaned back in her chair, and removed the glasses from the end of her nose, setting them beside the empty oatmeal bowl. Seconds of silence passed before she continued. “Sometimes money changes people. As for Matt’s brother, Alexander, don’t worry about him. Monica is the one you’ll have to keep an eye on, especially when she’s around Matthias. She’s the conniving one. Alexander is just . . . well, I think Matt described him pretty well last night. Harmless but not exactly benevolent. I think that’s the nicest way to put it.”

I opened my eyes wide, shocked by her candor.

“I just tell it like it is, Grace. Monica always had a thing for Matt. It’s just that her thing for money was stronger. I think Alexander knows that, and it’s driven a wedge between him and his brother. They were always different but they were close before she came along.”

Desperate to change the subject, I nodded and sipped my coffee while my stomach did somersaults. “I’d like to get something for Matt.” I paused and she waited. “I don’t have much money. Do you have any ideas of what he might like?”

She looked up from her coffee and smiled. “Yes, I’m glad you asked. I think I know the perfect thing. Come on out to my studio.”

I followed Aletha out to the garage, which looked as old as the house but wasn’t maintained as well on the outside, its beige, battered shingles in need of repair. She ushered me inside and closed the door quickly, giggling like we were conspiring schoolgirls. There were racks everywhere with drying pottery, sculptures, and an easel with a half-finished landscape painting. The walls were lined with large shelving systems that went all the way up to the ceiling and were filled to the very edge with brushes in tins, metal tools, and glass jars. The new potter’s wheel sat in the corner. The only gleaming, untouched surface was the large, round metal top of the wheel. From the back of the door, Aletha grabbed a smock and handed it to me. “How about you make something for Matthias?”

“Sure, but what? I’m not very good at this.” I picked up a metal coffee cylinder filled with tiny silver tools. “What are these for?”

“Leather tooling.”

“Oh! Matt needs a belt. He’s been wearing two shoelaces tied together.”

“Perfect,” she said. She walked to a long metal cabinet and pulled out a solid leather strip with four round holes punched through one end. “All you’ll need is a buckle. We can go thrift-store shopping for that.”

I was falling more and more in love with her by the second.

Taking a tiny hammer and a few tools from the coffee tin, I held them up. “So do I just tap these into the leather?”

“First, we must wet the leather a bit so it’ll be pliable enough. That way the design will set and last longer, maybe forever.” She went to the farmhouse sink and returned a moment later with a wet rag. She saturated the leather using the small towel and then took a step back. “Have at it, honey.”

“What kind of design should I do?”

“That’s up to you.”

I studied the tools with different shapes on the end. There was a circle made of three squiggly lines. I grabbed it, along with a tiny solid circle, and pressed the larger circle into the leather with ease, leaving a permanent indentation. Then I took the smaller circle and tapped it into the center of the design I had already made.

She stood over me. “Wow, that looks just like an eye, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

“Let’s girlify it then. May I?” I nodded and she picked up a tool with a narrow teardrop shape at the end and made three divots above the eye design and three below. Then she tapped in a second eye and repeated the process. She took a half-moon-shaped tool and pressed it, striking it quickly several times in a row on the top and bottom edges, creating a border. Before I knew it, two inches of the belt was designed, abstract enough to resemble a paisley print or women’s eyes looking out from a pattern of tribal swirls.

“That is so impressive,” I said.

“Now you have the design. ‘Eyes on Matt,’ I assume, if we had to name it.” She laughed.

“ ‘My Eyes on Matt,’ ” I corrected, and she chuckled even harder.

“He’ll love it. Just repeat the design over and over until you’re at the end of the belt.” She scooted a tall wooden stool behind me, so I sat down and got to work.


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