ABOUT TWO BLOCKS from our apartment I know he’s behind me again, far enough back to give me some space, close enough that he knows where I am. Upstairs in the narrow hallway, I fumble with my keys as he bursts through the door to the stairwell, out of breath. At least he was smart enough to let me take the elevator alone.
The flat is dark now, the sun no longer lingering in the sky, and I don’t bother to turn on any lights. Instead, I lean against the doorway to the bedroom and stare at the floor. He stops in front of the kitchen, directly across from me but leaving about four feet in between. Slowly, his breathing returns to normal. I don’t even have to look directly at him to know he feels miserable. From the corner of my eye I can see his slumped posture, the way he’s staring at me.
“Talk to me,” he whispers, finally. “This is a horrible feeling, Mia. Our first fight, and I don’t know how to make it okay between us.”
I shake my head, looking down at my feet. I don’t even know where to start. This is so much more than a first fight. A first fight is what happens when he keeps leaving the toilet seat up or washes my new silk dress in hot water. He kept me in the dark about Perry, about a fiancée he had, for two months—and I don’t even know why.
I’m drowning in humiliation and we both seem so unbelievably naïve for thinking this was anything but a joke. This entire thing is such an epic rebound for him. Six years with her and then he jumps into a marriage with a stranger? It’s almost comical. “I just want to go home. Tomorrow, I think,” I say, numbly. “I was planning on leaving soon anyway.”
I thought he was leaning against the wall but realize he wasn’t only when he seems to collapse back against it. “Don’t,” he breathes. “Mia, no. You can’t leave early because of this. Talk to me.”
My anger flares, renewed at the slight measure of disbelief in his voice. “I can leave because of this! How could you let me walk into that? I was completely blindsided!”
“I didn’t know she would be there!” he insists. “Marie and Christophe are my friends from before; she doesn’t really know them. I don’t know why she was there!”
“Maybe because you were engaged? I don’t even know where to start. You’ve been lying to me, Ansel. How long were you going to let me believe Perry was a guy? How many times did we talk about him? Why didn’t you just tell me from that first moment in Vegas when I asked where ‘he’ was?”
He takes a careful step forward, hands held out in front of him like he’s approaching a wounded animal. “When you first called Perry ‘he,’ none of us thought to correct you, because we were in a bar. I had no idea we would be drunk and married a few hours later—”
“I’ve been here for weeks. You could have told me as soon as we got here that your fiancée lives nearby and oh, by the way, she’s Perry, the fourth member of your super-close gang—who is not a guy!” I press a shaking hand to my forehead, remembering the night someone came to the door while we slept, remembering how distracted Ansel was when he came back to bed—and how almost naked—how I asked him who it was and he said it was Perry, but again didn’t correct me when I called Perry he.
“Oh my God, that night someone came to the door? And when I came home you were talking to her on the phone, weren’t you? You left the room to go talk to the girl you were going to marry but—oops!—you married me instead! No wonder she’s so fucking pissed!”
He’s been speaking over me in tiny, pleading bursts, saying, “No,” and “Mia,” and “Wait,” and finally he gets a word in: “It’s not like that at all. After Vegas, I didn’t know how to tell you! Did I even need to make a big thing of it so soon? She wasn’t my girlfriend anymore! But then she called, and she came over . . .”
“Fiancée,” I correct, “not girlfriend.”
“Mia, no. We broke u—”
“Have you seen her? Besides that night?”
He regards me anxiously. “We had lunch twice.”
I want to punch him for that. Especially since I never got a lunch with him during a workday.
“I know, Mia,” he says, reading my expression. “I know. I’m sorry. I was hoping if we spoke face-to-face, she would stop calling and—”
“And did she?”
He hesitates. “No.” Ansel pulls his phone from his pocket. “You can read her texts, if you want. Or listen to her voicemails. You can see I never encouraged her. Please, Mia.”
I push my hands into my hair, wanting to scream at him but not sure I can open my mouth again without bursting into tears. The last thing I want is to hear her voice again.
“I wanted to tell you everything the night we played sinner and devil,” he says. “But I didn’t know how, and then we moved past it. After that, it seemed to become impossible.”
“It’s not impossible; it’s simple. You just correct me any one of the hundreds of times I got it wrong and say, ‘No, Mia, Perry is a chick and I was with her for six fucking years and oh, by the way? I was going to marry her.’ Instead you tell me about Minuit and deliberately mislead me.”
“I didn’t want to make you worry! I never expected you would have to meet her!”
I gape at him, my stomach plummeting. Finally, the truth. He simply hoped he wouldn’t have to deal. “You think that makes it okay? That you lied about her by omission? That because I would never meet her it would be okay?”
He’s already shaking his head. “That isn’t what I mean! We needed better roots,” he says, motioning between us frantically and closing his eyes as he struggles to find words. Even now my heart twists for him and how he seems to lose his ability to speak English fluently when he’s upset. He takes a deep breath, and when he opens his eyes and speaks again, his voice comes out steadier: “You and I were in a precarious place when you first came here. It was impulsive for both of us to do this. Work is a nightmare for me right now, but I wanted to make time for you. And then it became something more than fun and adventure with us. It was”—he pauses and his voice catches the tiniest bit—“it was real. We needed more time, just us. I didn’t want anything coming into this flat with us, especially not her.”
As soon as he says it, the words seem to echo back to him and his face falls a little.
“She lived here,” I remind him. “Even when you told me about Minuit, you didn’t say you lived together, that you were engaged, that you’d been together for so many years. That you had sex in that bed. If you had told me about her when I first got here—the full story—it wouldn’t even have been a problem. But tonight, the only person in that apartment who didn’t know what was going on was me, your wife.”
I turn, walking into the bedroom, planning to crawl into bed before remembering it’s the bed they got together, hoping maybe Perry would sleep better on it. I groan, turning around and walking right into Ansel’s broad chest.
When I try to push past him, he stops me, gripping my shoulders with shaking hands. “Please don’t walk away.”
I feel like a tornado is crashing around in my mind, but as usual, even though I’m so mad at him I could scream, the feel of his body so close and his hands sliding up my arms is so comforting, it starts to make order out of the chaos. His eyes soften and he blinks down to my mouth. “We need to keep talking about this.”
But when I try to speak, the words come out choked, stunted. “Y-y-y-y—” I close my eyes, trying again. “Y-y-y-y-you—”
I open my eyes, not sure what reaction I’ll see in his face because he’s really never heard me stutter and it hardly ever happens anymore.
His eyes are wide and his face contorted in pain as if he’s broken me. “Shit, Mia.”
“Mia . . .” He groans, pressing his face to my neck.
I push him away, wanting pretty much anything other than his sympathy right now. The anger makes my words come out sharper, and with each one I deliver, my tongue relaxes. “Y-you were w-with her so long. I just . . . tonight I felt like the other woman, you know? For the first time yesterday, I felt like your wife. But tonight I felt like I’d stolen you from her.”
“No,” he says, relief washing over his expression as he pushes my hair off my face so he can kiss my cheek. “Of course we broke up before I met you.”
Fuck. I have to ask. “But how long before you left?”
His face falls and I feel like I can hear every second tick past as he hesitates to answer.
“A few days.”
My heart sinks and I close my eyes, unable to look at him. “She moved out while you were gone, didn’t she?”
Another hesitation. “Yes.”
“You broke up with your girlfriend of six years only a few days before you married me.”
“Well, technically we broke up three weeks before I met you. I’d been biking across the States before Vegas,” he reminds me. “But it felt like it ended a long time before that. We both knew it was over. She is clinging to something that doesn’t exist anymore.” He cups my cheek and waits until I look up at him. “I wasn’t looking for anything, Mia, but that’s why I trust what I feel for you. I’ve never wanted anyone the way I want you. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever known.”
When I don’t say anything to this, he asks, “Can I tell you now? Everything?”
I don’t bother answering out loud. On the one hand, it seems a little late for a full disclosure. On the other, a sick part of me wants to know everything.
“Bike and Build started in May, and went through September,” he begins. “Finn, Olls, Perry, and I all became close within days of orientation. It was that kind of experience, okay, where everyone is thrown together and some friendships solidify, and others don’t? But ours, it did.”
He pauses, trailing his fingers down my arm.
“But it wasn’t an immediate affair with Perry and me, not sexual. She wanted it. At least, Oliver and Finn always insist that she wanted something with me from the first few days. I think I started to notice what they meant, maybe in July? And by August, I felt so much fondness and friendship for all of them that I would give her anything.” Pulling back so he can look at me in the dim light from the moon, he says, “Even sex. We only were lovers twice on that trip. A random night in August, when we were very drunk. And then, a few weeks later—after it had been so awkward and loaded with us—we were together on the last night before the excursion ended.”
My stomach twists in a strange combination of relief and pain and I close my eyes, forcing away the image of his hands on her body, his mouth full of hers.
“After that, Perry came back here, and I moved to Nashville for school. We were together without ever really discussing it. She assumed we were, and I wanted to give her that. We saw each other maybe two times a year, and everything else I told you was true. She got to know me well on the trip, sure. But I was twenty-two. I was not the same man then that I am now and we grew apart very quickly.”
He lowers his voice, sounding pained. “And as a love affair, it wasn’t ever passionate, Mia. It was . . .” He curses, wiping a hand across his face. “Like in . . . how do you say it?” He looks at me and I look away, unable to resist the adorable way his lips push forward as he searches for words. “Cendrillon? The fairy tale with the stepmother?”
“Cinderella?” I guess.
He snaps, nodding, and continues, “Like in Cinderella. I think we both wanted the glass shoe to fit. Do you understand?”
“She was the one I cheated on, two times. It is my most guilty thing, Mia. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore, that I’d done exactly what I always said I wouldn’t do, like my father, okay? I called to do the right thing for once and end things with her, and”—he pauses, taking a deep breath—“Perry couldn’t wait to tell me she turned down a design job in Nice so we could finally be together in Paris.”
I blink away, refusing to feel bad for him.
“So I . . .” He trails off, looking for the right word, and I’m more than happy to help him out here.
“You chickened out.”
He nods. “Okay, yes. And that really wasn’t fair to her. I should have ended things.”
“We both know I came here to escape my problems. But all this time you’re acting like some sort of benefactor, when you’re escaping, too. You used me to escape having to deal with her. You’re impulsive and do things without thinking, and, look, you married me. You convinced yourself you were being responsible, or doing the right thing by bringing me back, but you were really just making up for your past mistakes with Perry. I’m your way to make up for that. I’m your proof that you’re not your father.”
“Non,” he insists, voice as sharp as a blade. “I escaped into you, yes. But not because I was using you to prove something to myself, or make up for some mistake. I didn’t have to get your ticket; I didn’t have to track you down at the zoo. I know I’m not my father; it’s why I was disappointed with myself and how I treated Perry. I escaped into you because I fell in love with you.”
I let his words echo around the room until they’re drowned out by the sounds of horns and motorcycles and delivery trucks rumbling down narrow cobblestone streets late at night. I don’t even know what to think. My heart tells me to trust him, that he wasn’t intentionally keeping things from me for nefarious reasons, and that it really was just awkward and difficult to find the right time.
But my mind tells me it’s bullshit, and that if he wanted to develop real trust between us, he wouldn’t have used her nickname with me, he would have just told me who she was to him, that they lived together here, and how one of his closest friends is now his ex-fiancée. I want to shove him away for withholding information in our safest place: during role play, and the honesty it gave us.
It really isn’t that he has a past that bothers me. It’s the way he’s been keeping me in the dark, keeping me separate from the rest of his life, lying until he thinks we’ve reached some imagined milestone where he can be honest. And really, whether it’s intentional or not doesn’t matter. Maybe he didn’t think we would last past the summer, either.
“Have you felt real passion for me?” he asks quietly. “I’m suddenly very worried I’ve ruined this.”
After barely a breath, I nod, but in a way I worry I’m answering both questions: actual, and implied. The passion I feel for him is so intense it’s pulled me into his arms right now, even feeling as mad as I do. My skin seems to hum with warmth when I’m this close to him; his scent is overwhelming. But I’m also worried that he has ruined this.
“I’ve never felt this before,” he says into my hair. “Love like this.”
But my mind keeps looping back to the same question, the same dark betrayal. “Ansel?”
“Hmm?” His lips brush over my temple.
“How could you tell her about my accident? What made you think it was okay to share that with her?”
Ansel freezes beside me. “I did not.”
“She knew,” I say, growing angry again. “Ansel, she knew I’d been hit. She knew about my leg.”
“Not from me,” he insists. “Mia, I swear. If she heard anything about you—other than your name, and that you’re my wife—it would be from Oliver or Finn. They’re all still friends. This has been so weird for everyone.” He searches my eyes, lowering his voice when he says, “I don’t know why she talked to you. I don’t know why she went up to you tonight; she knows I would never be okay with her doing that.”
“You talked to her on the phone,” I remind him. “She came here in the middle of the night. You met her for lunch when you were even too busy to stay for breakfast with me. Maybe she doesn’t think the two of you are really done.”
He takes a few seconds to respond, but his hand spreads possessively across my breastbone, thumb sweeping up to the hollow of my throat. “She knows we’re done. But I’m not going to pretend like it was an easy breakup. It hasn’t been easy for her to know you’re here with me.”
There’s a softness in his voice I can’t handle right now, some sympathy for her and what she’s going through that makes me feel insane. Somewhere in my rational brain I’m glad he cares how this is for her; it means he’s not a complete asshole. It means he’s a good guy. But really, he fucked up so enormously, I don’t have the bandwidth to admire him while I’m still this angry.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry too much, I’m pretty sure she came out with the upper hand tonight.” I push him away when he reaches for me.
“Mia, that’s not—”
He grabs my arm when I begin to walk away and spins me, pressing my back to the wall and staring me down with a look so intense it causes goose bumps to rise along my skin. “I don’t want this to be hard on either of you,” he says in a deliberately patient voice, “and I know the way I’ve handled it was all wrong.”
I close my eyes, pressing my lips together to quell the vibrating hum I feel at his firm touch. I want to shove him, pull his hair, feel the weight of him pinning me down.
“I followed you out of the apartment,” he reminds me, bending to kiss my jaw. “I know it isn’t my job to make sure she’s okay anymore. But if what she feels for me is even a fraction of what I feel for you, I want to be careful with her heart, because I can’t imagine what I would do if you left me.”
It seems impossible that words alone could make me feel like my chest is caving in.
He licks my earlobe, murmuring, “It would wreck me. I need to know that you’re okay right now.”
His hands grow busy on my body in a tight, desperate sort of way. Maybe to distract me, maybe to reassure himself. He works his way down my front, over my thighs, bunching my skirt in his fist as he pulls it up over my hips.
“Ansel . . .” I warn, but even as I turn my head away from his lips, I tilt my pelvis into his touch. My hands form fists at my sides, wanting more, and rougher. Needing reassurance.
“Are you okay?” he asks, kissing my ear.
I don’t turn away when he kisses my chin again, and not even when he moves higher, eyes wide and careful as he kisses my mouth. But when his hand moves between my legs, and he growls, “I’m going to make you so wet,” as his fingers slip beneath my underwear, I find the resolve to push his arm away.
“You can’t fix this with sex.”
He pulls back, eyes wide in confusion. “What?”
I’m incredulous. “You think you can just calm me down by making me come?”
He looks baffled, nearly angry for the first time. “If it calms you down, if it makes you feel better, then who the hell cares how it happens?” His cheeks bloom with a heated blush. “Isn’t that what we’ve been doing all this time? Finding a way to be married, to be intimate even when things are scary or new or just too fucking surreal to process?”
I’m thrown, because he’s right. It’s exactly what we’ve been doing, and I do want to be pulled out of this moment. Distraction, coping, muddling through—whatever it is, I want it. I want to stop talking about all of this. I want him to push away all the doubts in my head and give me the part of him that only I get to see now.
“Fine. Distract me,” I dare him, teeth clenched. “Let’s see if you can make me forget how mad I am.”
It takes him a moment to process what I’ve said before he leans in again, teeth grazing my jaw. I exhale through my nose before my head falls back against the wall and I give in. His hands return to my waist, rougher now, yanking my shirt up and over my head before he works my skirt down my hips and into a puddle on the floor.
But even as he cups me in his hand, sucking in a jagged breath through his teeth and whispering, “Tu es parfaite,” I can’t touch him back with any sort of tenderness. I feel punitive and selfish and still so angry. The combination pulls a tight choking sound from my mouth and his hand stills where he’d been pushing my underwear aside.
“Be angry,” he rasps. “Show me what angry looks like.”
It’s a beat before the words bubble up, but when they come growling out, it doesn’t sound like me: “Your mouth.”
I unleash the girl who lets herself feel anger, who can punish. I shove his chest hard, both palms flat to pectorals, and he stumbles back, lips parted and eyes wide with thrill. I push him again, and his knees meet the edge of the bed and he crumples backward, scooting up to the headboard and watching me stalk him, climb on him until my hips are level with his face and I can reach down and grab a fistful of his hair.
“I’m not okay,” I tell him, holding him back as he tries to push forward, to kiss me, lick me, maybe even bite me.
“I know,” he says, eyes dark and urgent. “I know.”
I lower my hips and hear a primitive cry tear from my throat as his open mouth makes contact with my clit and he sucks, lifting his arms and wrapping them in tight bands around my hips. He’s wild and hungry, letting out perfect pleading growls and satisfied moans when I begin to rock and ride him, my fist in his hair.
His mouth is both soft and strong, but he’s letting me control everything—the speed and pressure and it’s so good but God, I want you in me so deep I feel you in my throat.
Ansel laughs against my skin and I realize I’ve said this out loud. Irritation washes over me like a heated blush and I pull away, humiliated. Vulnerable.
“No,” he whispers. “No, no. Viens par ici.” Come here.
I make him work for it, fingers coaxing and his soft pleading noises until finally he pulls my hips back down and urges me with fingers pressed into my flesh to chase my pleasure again, to give him this in this twisted game of me giving him what he needs by riding his face.
I’m prickling everywhere—along my neck and down my arms, feeling hypersensitive and overheated. But the sensitivity is nearly unbearable where he’s licking me, because it’s too good, it’s nearly impossible that I can be this close, so soon
so fucking soon
but I am.
The top half of my body falls forward, fingers white-knuckling the headboard, and I’m coming, screaming, pressing so hard into his mouth I don’t know how he can breathe but he’s savage beneath me—still—hands gripping my hips and not letting me budge for a second until my muscles go lax and he can feel my orgasm subside against his lips.
I feel ravaged and worshipped as I slip, boneless, to the bed. I feel his fear and his love and his panic and finally, I let loose the sob that’s been held back in my throat for what feels like hours. In a quiet rush, I know we’re both sure of one thing: I’m leaving.
He moves to my ear, and his voice is so jagged it’s barely recognizable when he asks, “Do you ever feel like your heart is twisted inside your chest, and somebody has their fist wrapped around it, squeezing?”
“Yes,” I whisper, closing my eyes. I can’t see him like this, the sadness I’m sure I’ll see on his face.
“Mia? Mia, I’m so sorry.”
“Tell me you still . . . like me.”
But I can’t. My anger doesn’t work that way. So instead of waiting for me to answer, he bends to kiss my ear, my shoulder, whispering into my neck words I don’t understand.
Slowly, we catch our breath and his mouth finds its way to mine. He kisses me forever like this—and I let him—it’s the only way I can tell him I love him even as I’m also saying goodbye.
IT SEEMS TO go against every instinct I have to be the one getting out of bed first, and dressing in the dark while he sleeps. As quietly as I can, I pull my clothes from the dresser and dump them into my suitcase. My passport is just where he said it would be—in the top drawer of the dresser—and something about this tears at the thin lining still holding me together. I leave most of my toiletries behind; packing them would be loud and I don’t want to wake him. I’m going to seriously miss my fancy new face cream but I don’t think I would be able to walk away from him if he was awake, watching me silently, and especially if he was trying to talk me out of this.
It’s a trickle of hesitation I should listen to—maybe a message that I’m not sure this is the best idea I’ve ever had—but I don’t. I barely even look over at him—still mostly clothed and sprawled out on top of the covers—while I’m packing and dressing and searching the desk in the living room for a piece of paper and a pen.
Because once I step back into the bedroom and I do see him, I can’t imagine looking away. Only now do I realize I hadn’t taken the time to appreciate how ridiculously hot he looked last night. The deep blue button-down shirt—slim-cut to fit the wide stretch of his chest, the narrow dip of his waist—is unbuttoned just beneath the hollow of his throat, and my tongue feels thick with the need to bend down, suck on those favorite transitions of mine: neck to chest, chest to shoulder. His jeans are worn and perfect, faded over time in all the best, familiar places. At the thigh, over the button fly. He didn’t even take off his favorite brown belt before falling asleep—it’s just hanging open, his pants unbuttoned and slung low on his hips—and suddenly my fingers itch to pull the leather free of the loops, to see and touch and taste his skin just one more time.
I probably can’t, but it feels like I can see the trip of his pulse in his throat, imagine the warm taste of his neck on my tongue. I know how his sleepy hands would weave into my hair as I worked his boxers down his hips. I even know the desperate relief I would see in his eyes if I woke him up right now—not to tell him goodbye, but to make love one last time. To forgive him with words. No doubt true makeup sex with Ansel would be so good I’d forget, while he was touching me, that there was ever any distance between us at all.
And now that I’m here, struggling to be quiet and leave without waking him, it fully registers that I can’t touch him again before I go. I swallow back a tight, heavy lump in my throat, a sob I think would escape in a sharp gasp, like steam under pressure, pushed from a teapot. The pain is like a fist to my stomach, punching me over and over until I want to punch it back.
I’m an idiot.
But damn. So is he.
It takes so many long, painful seconds for me to pull my eyes away from where he lies and down to the pen and paper in my hands.
What the hell am I supposed to write here? It’s not goodbye, most likely. If I know him at all—and I do, no matter how small a drop that knowledge felt last night—he won’t leave the rest of this to phone calls and emails. I’ll see him again. But I’m leaving while he sleeps, and given the reality of his job, I may not see him for months. This isn’t exactly the right moment for a see-you-soon note, anyway.
So I opt for the easiest, and the most honest, even if my heart seems to twist into a knot in my chest as I write it.
This isn’t never. It’s just not now.
All my like,
I really need to figure out my own messes before I blame him for shoving his in the proverbial box, and keeping them under his proverbial bed.
But fuck, did I want this to be now, yes, forever.