Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 9

Why Didn’t We Tell Each Other?

GRACE

The air outside of Senior House hit me like an arctic blast. Winter was settling in. I rushed to the stoplight, hit the crosswalk button, looked across the street, and then completely froze in my boots. Matt was standing on the other side, looking right at me. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a gray long-sleeved thermal shirt underneath, jeans, and his boots. It was coat weather, and as I watched him from across the street, his hands gripping the straps of his backpack, I thought I could see him shivering.

My heart skipped a beat; I swallowed. He smiled and I couldn’t help but return it, even though I wanted to ask him a million questions I knew I couldn’t. It was his life and we were friends. When it was time to cross, we walked toward each other and stopped in the middle of crosswalk.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“Dinner.”

His eyes flitted down my body and back up to my eyes. In the three months I had known him, I had rarely worn anything nicer than sweats and ChapStick. There was a longing in his expression. “Let me walk you.” His teeth chattered, drawing my eyes to his full lips and unshaven jawline. I wanted to rub my face against them.

The light was about to turn, and we had to get out of the middle of the street. “You’re freezing, Matt. Just go home, I’ll be fine.”

We hurried across the street, shoulder to shoulder.

“Where are you going to dinner?”

“The Thai place around the corner.”

His hands were deep in his pockets and his arms were pressed tight against his body. “I can walk you.”

“I don’t need you to walk me two blocks, Matt. I’m fine.”

A subtle grimace flashed on his face and then he took a step toward me, reached his hand out, and caressed my cheek, our bodies inches apart. He released a weak, frustrated breath. “Who’s taking you to dinner? . . . Grace?”

I peeked over Matt’s shoulder and saw Dan standing there, an inscrutable look on his face. Matt turned around and then turned back to me, his eyebrows arched. “Pornsake?” I didn’t like the humor in his tone.

I pushed him away. “Fuck you, Matt. I’m sure you can find something else to do. Isn’t there some big darkroom orgy you need to attend?”

“What?”

“I can smell rum on your breath.”

“So what? I had a shot with my photo buddies. I was coming home to see if you wanted to hang out.”

“I can’t. I have plans. Bye, Matt.” I turned around and didn’t look back.

Dan gave a halfhearted wave and shot Matt a friendly smile. I didn’t want to see the look on Matt’s face, so I tugged him by the arm and headed toward the restaurant.

Once inside, Dan pulled my chair out for me. He was kind and gentlemanly, offering to choose a wine for us. We made it through the first hour of dinner by making small talk about the orchestra he planned to form before the summer started. He was thinking about leaving NYU and following his dream of creating a fulltime traveling orchestra.

His teacher’s façade slipped away, and his enthusiasm for music made him seem like a peer, not a professor. We laughed a lot, and there was an ease to the conversation. Something about him, his maturity and know-how, made him seem attractive to me for the first time.

“Are you and Matt dating?” he asked.

I had to make a decision in that moment. It wasn’t like me to lie, but I didn’t want to lead Dan on, and I knew why he was asking the question. “Well, it’s complicated.”

He looked down to his fidgeting hands. “I heard Tatiana this morning say something . . .”

“I like Matt,” I blurted out. Which wasn’t a lie at all.

“That makes a lot of sense.”

“What do you mean?” I wasn’t sure if he thought Matt and I would make a great couple or if he was making a general statement about dating in college.

“Girls like you always go for guys like Matt.” That pissed me off. I didn’t like that he assumed he knew anything about Matt, although at the moment my opinion of Matt probably wasn’t much better than his.

“What, are we in elementary school, Dan?” I was suddenly extremely defensive. “Certain girls can only date certain boys?” I narrowed my eyes at him and leaned forward. “Wait, is this why you bought me a bow and took me to dinner. Did you think I would hop into bed with you?”

He put his hand out to stop me. “Hold on. Before you let your imagination get the best of you, the answer is no. I don’t want to sleep with you.” His eyes darted to the ceiling. He cocked his head to the side. “Well, actually . . .”

“Forget it.” I started to get up.

“Stop, Grace. What I’m trying to say is that college guys like Matt usually have one thing on their minds, you know? I was like him once; I know these things. I bought you the bow because I wanted you to have it. I invited you to dinner because I like talking to you. Things are not always as black and white as we make them out to be when we’re young. I’m less than a decade older than you, but in my time I’ve learned this much: there are lots of gray areas. Going to dinner at night with a man does not have to be about sex.”

I swallowed but still found myself at a loss for words. He reached out and clutched my hand across the table. “Okay?”

“Okay,” I said. We lapsed into awkward silence for the rest of the meal.

After dinner, he walked me back to Senior House and didn’t even gesture for a hug. I thanked him for the bow and dinner and said I would see him tomorrow. When I opened the door to the lobby, I immediately heard Operation Ivy playing loudly on the lounge stereo, telling me to proceed with caution. I heard several voices laughing and talking, and when I turned the corner I spotted Matt on the couch with his arm around a girl who looked exactly like Rachel from Friends. He saw me, held up a shot glass full of brown liquid, and yelled, “Body shots!” He stuck a lime wedge in the girl’s mouth, shook a saltshaker on her cleavage, and then—I kid you not—grinned at me before licking the tops of the girl’s breasts. He took the shot and covered her mouth with his own.

The other people in the room became visible to me as I tore my attention away from the scene, which was making me nauseous. Everyone looked to be having a great time.

Matt, who had managed to pry his mouth free, was now watching me. “Want one?” He held up a bottle of tequila.

I flipped him off and walked toward the stairs, but he was behind me in an instant. “How was your date with Pornsake?”

I didn’t even turn around. “It wasn’t a date. It was just dinner.”

“Okay, Grace. Whatever you say.”

I whirled around in anger at the top of the landing. “What if I told you that I had sex with him?”

“I’d say you’re a liar.” He had been drinking a lot. I could tell. Nothing was holding him back.

“He bought me a bow for my cello, so I sucked him off in the bathroom at the Thai place.”

His lips flattened as he searched my eyes. “Oh yeah? Then why don’t you come and hang out in the lounge with my buddies? You can never have too many girls around who like giving blow jobs.”

“Okay, let’s go.” I walked past him and down three steps. He remained rooted on the stairs, looking puzzled for a few moments before catching up with me.

In the lounge, I grabbed the bottle of tequila and took a couple of swigs, then went up to a tall blond guy with long hair. “I’m Grace.” I stuck my hand out.

“Hey, Grace,” he said, shaking my hand delicately. “You Matt’s Grace?”

I huffed. “I’m nobody’s Grace.” I held the bottle out to him and looked over to find Matt back on the couch, except this time he was alone, watching me.

An hour of drinking and getting high went by. I was feeling really out of it. Rachel from Friends was back, and my blond buddy was inching closer and closer to me the longer we talked. Still, Matt hadn’t taken his eyes off me.

“You want to go to my room?” my blond friend asked.

“Sure.”

He pulled me away from the lounge toward the stairs. We got to the first landing when he pushed me against the wall and tried to kiss me. I turned my head. “No.”

He laughed. “What did you think we were gonna do in my room?”

“Hang out?” I said, flushing pink.

He jerked his head back. “So you’re just a little tease?”

“That’s enough.” Matt gripped the back of the blond guy’s neck in a somewhat friendly way but clearly wanting to make a point. “She’s fuckin’ wasted, man. You really want to have sex with that? Dude, she’s a mess.”

I scowled.

Blond Guy looked over to him. “You’re right.” He rolled his eyes at me and then took off down the stairs and back into the lounge.

I fell into Matt’s arms and crumbled from exhaustion. I just wanted everything to be normal with us. I wanted Matt to tell me everything and be my best friend again, but I worried something had changed between us in the span of a day. He held me close and whispered near my ear, “What are you doing, baby?”

I started to cry. I’ll admit that crying was really lame, but the alcohol, pot, and my stupid behavior was wreaking havoc on my emotions. “Do I disgust you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You said to that guy, ‘Do you really want to have sex with that?’ What was that supposed to mean?”

“Grace, your eyes are, like, almost all the way closed. You’re super stoned and drunk. I know that guy and he probably wouldn’t have cared if you passed out on him; he still would have taken advantage of you.”

I planted my face in my hands and started to cry even more. The small amount of mascara I was wearing ran steadily down my face.

“Come on. Let’s forget this shit.” He pulled me up the stairs.

Inside my room, I dropped the keys on my desk and stumbled toward the bathroom. I heard Matt put a U2 CD on the stereo.

When it was just the two of us together, it was like everything was okay and we could be Grace and Matt. There was no need for discussion. But out there in the real world. . . .

I came out of the bathroom to find him tinkering with the thermostat.

“I’m roasting. What the fuck is the deal with the heater?” he said.

“Daria put in a work order. I asked her yesterday.” The furnace in our hall was on the fritz and wouldn’t work for three days straight, then it would suddenly start working but wouldn’t stop. That’s what you get when you live in an old building in New York City.

I started to shimmy out of my tights. “Turn around,” I commanded, but he continued to watch me. “Turn around, I’m gonna change.” He finally did. Begrudgingly. I threw on a summery flower dress that was sitting in a pile of clothes on my bed, then I sat down on the floor and watched as Matt kicked off his shoes. He slid across the hardwood in his socks and tried to pry open the window. “It’ll get cold in here really fast if you open that.”

He turned and eyed me, wearing next to nothing in my tiny spaghetti-strap dress. And then he took his shirt off. My breath hitched every time I saw him shirtless. His shoulders were broad but his waist was narrow, and he wore his jeans low on his hips, sometimes with boxers, sometimes without. That night he was sans boxers and wearing the shoelace belt I’d made for him.

“Whatchya lookin’ at?” He walked toward me, smirking.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I was looking at your cool belt.”

“Sure you were.” He grabbed the bottle of tequila from my bookshelf, took a swig, and handed it to me, but I waved it off. I couldn’t drink another drop. “My other belt broke. My mom’s going to make me a new one when I’m there for break.”

“She makes belts?”

“Yeah, she’s crafty.”

“How does she do it?”

“She uses little metal tools to create designs in the leather.” He pointed to the leather strap on his camera, which was resting on my nightstand, where he had left it the day before. I didn’t look over. I was still busy staring at his happy trail . . . which didn’t escape him. When I looked up at his face, I saw that his eyes were on me, unblinking.

I shook myself out of the daze and reached over to pick up the camera. There was an intricate pattern of circles and triangles perforated into the leather. “That’s really cool.”

Hovering over me, he held his hand out. “Come on, dance with me.”

“What? No.”

“Get up here and dance with me, chicken.”

“I’m not a very good dancer and I’m too tipsy.”

“You seemed to be pretty good at that little flirty thing in the lounge with what’s-his-face.”

“I feel stupid about that. Please don’t bring it up. Anyway, you were the one doing body shots with Jennifer Aniston.”

“She does kind of look like Jennifer Aniston, huh?”

I rolled my eyes.

“Come on, get up here. I’ll lead. All you have to do is follow.”

I took his hand and stood up. I laughed nervously but he didn’t hesitate; he pressed one hand into the small of my back, grabbed my other hand in his, and pulled me into his bare chest. “Hand on my shoulder, Gracie.”

The song “With or Without You” by U2 came on. Matt swayed to the beat then pushed me back and twirled me around. When he brought me back in, our bodies were even closer than before. He dropped his head down and kissed my bare shoulder. My heart was racing. His skin was hot against mine. We stopped moving and stepped away from each other, just a few inches. I ran my index finger down the indentation of his obliques and admired the sculpted muscles of his lower abdomen. The deep V of his abs seemed to point down, sending my eyes on a little trip south. I could see from the way his chest was moving that his breathing had picked up, too.

“What are you doing?” His voice was low.

“Sorry . . .” I tried to pull my hand away from his stomach, but he grabbed it and put it back.

“You don’t have to stop.”

I put my hands on his waist and slid them up his hard sides to his chest and the soft tuft of hair in the center before they came to rest behind his neck. We began to sway, like we were slow dancing. His eyes were closed but he was smiling. “Mmm. My turn.”

“You don’t take me seriously, do you, Matt?”

His eyes shot open. He pulled me flush to his body so I could feel him hard against me. “Is that serious enough for you?” he said, roughly.

I pushed him away and staggered sideways. He sat down on the bed and tapped his foot on the CD player to stop the music. Leaning over, he set his elbows on his knees, letting his head fall between them. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.” I shuffled across the floor, feeling embarrassed for the first time in a long time. I plopped down next to him and threw my arm over his shoulder. We lay back across the bed and stared up at the ceiling. I rested my head on his arm like we had done so many times before.

“It’s not fair for me to do that. I’m really sorry, Matt.”

“It’s fine,” he said, but I don’t think he meant it.

I had thought over and over in my head how I would say what I wanted to say to him, but it came out all wrong. “Do you want me to get naked so you can . . . I mean, do you want to take a picture of my, of me . . . you know, like the naked girl in the . . .”

He chuckled. “Do you think that’s gonna help my situation, Grace?” He lifted his head and glanced down at his crotch.

I could feel that my face was hot and completely red. “No, I mean . . .” I swallowed, and tears began to cloud my eyes. My voice didn’t sound like my own. I sounded so weak. “I’m a virgin, Matt.”

There weren’t many virgins my age at NYU, and I was beginning to wonder if I had missed my window. That’s what happens; as you get older, it gets harder and harder to pursue an intimate relationship with someone. I had avoided it because I was so laser-focused on school and music. By sophomore year, I was literally the only person I knew who was still a virgin. I felt like a joke. And I was scared guys would think I was weird or inexperienced.

Matt’s face was penitent and his eyes were wide. He brushed my cheek with his palm. “I know, Grace. I’ve known since, like, the first day we met. You don’t have to do anything. I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”

“You knew?”

He nodded. I guess it was that obvious. Did I have “VIRGIN” tattooed on my forehead?

“I just thought maybe you would want to take a picture of me, like the other girl?”

I could see in that moment that Matt knew it would mean more to me than to him. “I would love to photograph you, Grace. I will always want to photograph you.”

He stood from the bed and took a deep breath to collect himself before grabbing his camera. Looking back at me, curled up in my dress, he said, “I’ll just take the pictures. You do whatever makes you feel comfortable, okay?”

“Okay. Can we have music?”

“Of course.” He changed the CD and put on Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” I moved to the edge of the bed and lifted the dress over my head, tossed it aside, and then I slid my panties down to my ankles and kicked them off, never once looking up at Matt. Holding my hands over my bare breasts, I heard him snap a few pictures while I sat there, very still, looking down at the ground. He walked over to the lamp and put some thin material over the shade, dimming the light. I turned and pulled the bedspread back, revealing the white sheets before lying back on the pillow. I looked up at him finally but kept my body covered with my hands as best as I could.

His head was cocked to the side, like he was studying the composition, while he held the camera by the lens in his left hand. As he walked toward me, I could tell he was trying to read my expression. He stood over me at the edge of the bed and ran his right hand over my propped-up knee before skimming it down my calf. “Try to relax, okay, baby?”

I nodded nervously. “My boobs are really small.”

He shook his head and smiled. “Take your hands away, Grace. You’re beautiful.” Something about Matt’s confidence and the way he took photography so seriously made it easier for me to pose for him. When he pulled the camera away from his eyes, I could see the beatific expression on his face. It reminded me of the way I felt when I played music. It was like something transcendent happened to him when he took pictures. Closing my eyes and breathing shallowly, I put my hands above my head and then heard the shutter clicking away as Jeff Buckley promised me that it would never ever be over.

Later, as I lay wrapped in my blankets, I watched Matt scouring the room. “What are you doing?”

“Looking for my shirt.”

I yanked it out from underneath the bed. “Found it. But it’s mine now.” I pulled it over my head. I loved the way Matt’s clothes smelled, like fabric softener and man soap.

“Holding my clothes hostage?”

“Stay with me?”

He stared at me for an uncomfortably long time.

“Matt?”

“All right,” he said, quietly. He slipped his jeans off and came toward me in his boxers. When I yanked back the old quilt, he slid between the blankets. “Come here, Gracie,” he said, pulling me toward him. I passed out in his arms.

Would I ever be able to stop thinking about how it felt to be wrapped up in him like that? Our bodies merged into one. Sleeping alone would never feel normal again. The way he moved was confident. Male. Slipping into his embrace was the most natural thing. Maybe it was because of all the months we’d been studying each other, waiting for this moment. Or maybe it was because he had done this before.


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