IT’S SAFE TO say the best way to start off a weekend is not by getting your dick swabbed. Any other way is better, trust me.
“These tests are very accurate,” the nurse assures me, oblivious to my panic as she glances at my chart. “We’ll take some blood, and do a quick sample so we can screen for syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia, genital herpes, and HIV.”
“Sounds good,” I croak. The dreaded swab remains wrapped in the sterile packaging on the tray near her elbow.
“Do you have any pain when you urinate?” she asks me.
“No.” I shift, trying to keep the man bits covered in the paper bathrobe they gave me; it barely reaches my thighs. I casually rest my hands over where my junk is totally visible, although I don’t know why I’m bothering; I’ve done this once before and know that this nurse and I will be rather intimately, if clinically, acquainted before we’re done here.
“No burning, no discharge?”
Instinctively, I cup my groin protectively. “No.”
“Well, that’s good.” She smiles at me as she stands, and moves to wash her hands. “I’ll do a brief visual exam and then we’ll collect some blood, okay?”
“No swab?” I ask.
She winces apologetically as she turns and dries her hands, opening the trash bin with a foot lever. “I’m very good; it will be quick.”
The nurse turns, snaps on a pair of gloves, and walks toward me. That snap rings through the room and I hear every one of her footfalls.
In the end—no pun intended—it is quick, although I could go an entire lifetime without having a dry cotton swab stuck up my dick or the awkwardness of having a nurse my mother’s age turn over and inspect every facet of my junk. But after giving a small vial of blood for testing, I’m off.
I feel lighter as I walk out of the clinic, checking one thing off my turning-over-a-new-leaf checklist. I’m not particularly worried. Even with Mia, I wore condoms.
It’s just the vague nausea that accompanies the possibility of STDs. I haven’t always been having sober sex, and many times the not-sober sex was also relatively acrobatic. What are the chances a condom broke and I have no idea? What are the chances I got head—never with condoms, I’m an idiot, I know—from a girl with herpes?
I grip the steering wheel tightly in one hand as I leave the clinic and turn up the music with the other, trying to drown out the spiral of panicky thoughts. I have an entire, unscheduled day ahead of me. Only a month ago this would have been my ideal situation, and easily solved: head to Andrew’s or Daniel’s for beers on the patio, some polo scrimmaging in the pool in the afternoon, and the bar later.
But nothing on that list sounds right today. Daniel is, in fact, a complete douche. He has a newborn son with a waitress he banged for a few weeks, and now has to work his ass off to cover child support, yet still manages to spend most of his free evenings at a bar, trolling for sex. Andrew is only marginally better, but he still tends to cycle through girlfriends every few weeks. Cody is enjoying a suddenly-single sex rampage, so I’m assuming he’s given up on reuniting with Jess. Only Dylan is a genuinely good guy, nice to women, deserves someone great . . . I just hope he’s not into London.
As soon as I think of her, my brain careens full bore into the idea of seeing her today. Surfing last weekend was more fun than I’ve had in recent memory, and after a week of insane hours at work, and not seeing her at all at Fred’s, I’m like a dog on a scent—unable to get past the thought of spending the day doing all of the best nothings with her.
I hit the Bluetooth button on my steering wheel. “Call London,” I say, and take a deep, calming breath while it dials.
“WANT SOMETHING TO drink?” I call out over my shoulder as she takes off her shoes and drops her bag near the door. “I’ve got beer, water . . . juice boxes . . .”
London comes up behind me in the kitchen, looking over my shoulder into the fridge. “You have juice boxes?”
I shrug, trying to lean back without her noticing so I can get closer. She smells like the beach, and coconut oil. I let myself enjoy the five-second fantasy of us sitting on the beach, London sitting between my legs while I rub oil all over her back. Then she relaxes into me and I rub oil all over her ti—
“Luke? Juice boxes?”
I blink, looking back down into the fridge, focusing on the cold air against my front. “I took Grams grocery shopping last night and she always insists on stocking my fridge, too.”
“And she got you juice boxes?” she says, voice softer now. “That’s extremely adorable. I want to meet this woman.”
“She’ll be at our wedding.”
London laughs, stepping away. “Right.”
Closing the fridge, I tell her, “She also got me Ritz crackers and string cheese.”
“Does she think you run a day care?”
I laugh. “She likes me to have my snacks,” I tell her. When she backs up to let me grab some crackers from the pantry, I catch another whiff of her. “Did you go surfing this morning?”
“Yeah. Just went to Black’s for a couple hours.”
Black’s Beach is probably the best surfing in San Diego County. I know this not because I’ve spent any time swimming there, but because it was one of Dad’s favorite spots back in the day—and I try not to think too much about it also being a nude beach back in the day, too.
“It was pretty busy,” she adds. “Entitled surfer dudes everywhere.”
My body reacts to her as if she’s a girlfriend, and I need to tell my brain to cut that shit out. Grabbing two juice boxes from the fridge and the sleeve of Ritz crackers, I point to the living room. “I believe we have a date with some Titans.”
London follows me into the living room. “You sound pretty confident.”
“I’ve been practicing since the night you spanked me.”
“Probably a good idea,” she says, and bends to grab a controller off the coffee table. “You sucked pretty hard.”
“At the game, you mean. The sex was stellar.”
She doesn’t answer, but her practiced silence tickles me, and I can’t help but push, just one more time: “Does being back here, at the start of it all, have you feeling nostalgic?” I ask her over my shoulder before bending to grab the remote.
“No,” she says, and then shoves my shoulder so I know even if she means it, she’s not trying to be an asshole.
Even if I am, just a little.
We sit down next to each other—definitely not touching—waiting for the game to load. The crinkle of her straw wrapper crackles through the silence and when I look at her, she cheekily punctures the top and slides the straw into the side of her mouth, saying “I love fruit punch” around it.
Fucking fuck. I am so screwed.
The best and worst part about being near her is that I know she’s not trying to flirt. She isn’t a cocktease. She’s just honestly that cute.
I look away from her mouth and back to the television. “I’m usually an apple juice guy, but I thought it was time to mix it up.”
We sign in, choosing our Titans, and drop down into the map without more discussion. When I’m not obsessing about kissing her, being with her is surprisingly effortless. We can just hang, talk or not talk—it’s easy either way. It’s like being with a guy friend I just really want to bang.
I fumble with the controller, get shot, and the game resets.
London turns and looks at me with her bright smile. “You okay there, Sparky? I thought you had been practicing?”
“Just had a mental tangent that left me momentarily incapacitated.”
She shakes her head, looking back at the screen. “I don’t think I want to know.”
We drop in again, and this time the action continues for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Our elbows collide as we work the controllers, and London shoves Ritz crackers into her mouth the same way I do—in handfuls, in the few seconds we have between bouts of action. I’m definitely better than the last time we played together, and it makes for a perfect afternoon. The idea of falling in love with a girl who plays video games, eats crackers like Cookie Monster, surfs, and bartends feels in some ways like the perfect male fantasy, but it’s also a little shadowed because I know there is more to London than this. This life—games, bars, girls—for me is just a phase; I know with some distance that it isn’t going to define this entire decade, or even the rest of this year. I’m going to leave for law school in a matter of months, and it will require me to have true responsibility away from my family. But what does London even want out of life?
I’m pulled out of the preposterous train of thought when she does something really stupid—hits the jump control instead of fire—and is killed.
“Damnit!” she yells, smacking the couch cushion. “Mother-trucking truck!”
I turn to her, smiling in delight. “Did I just kick your ass?”
“I think that’s an exaggeration.” She looks at her watch. “We were playing for—”
I interrupt her, leaning in. “You were totally thinking about my penis just then, weren’t you?”
She throws her empty juice box at me and her eyes widen when I catch it before it hits me and chuck it right at her, hitting her squarely in the chest.
London lunges for me, shoving me back on the couch before lifting a pillow and smacking me in the face with it. Her bubbly laughter hits me in an emotional space, somewhere high, where chest meets throat, and I’m unprepared for her assault, cough-laughing through a flurry of her fingers digging down, tickling me roughly.
I buck up beneath her, growing more aware of what we’re doing—wrestling—and what it means—motherfucking foreplay, ma’am—and I advance toward her on the couch, swatting at her hands, darting my fingers between her arms to tickle her ribs, and, with my other hand, grab a pillow from behind her and use it to hit her right in the face.
She shoves—hard—sending me off the couch and onto the floor, where she dives onto me, pinning me, wrestling in earnest. We’re laughing and yelling and one of us knocks the sleeve of Ritz crackers to the floor and it crunches under her shoulder when I roll over to hover above her, getting the upper hand and finding the place on her waist that, when prodded with a long finger, makes her wail in hysterics.
She smacks my hand when my tickles get too close to her boob, and scream-calls me a pervert so I bend down and blow an enormous raspberry right into where her neck meets her shoulder.
London shrieks even louder, and holy fuck, I am deaf. I clamp a hand over my ear, working to fight off her relentlessly tickling hands with only my left hand as defense.
We seem to realize at the same time that I’m over her, lying completely on top of her and situated between her legs and, in unison, we both freeze. I’d climb off her if she didn’t have two tight fistfuls of my shirt in her hands and if her eyes weren’t currently traveling the slow path from my stomach to my face.
It feels like I count to a hundred in the time it takes for either of us to breathe.
Finally, I feel the slide of her legs up my hips. Feel the give of her body beneath mine, and am suddenly, intensely aware of that soft, warm place between her legs. Her eyes have gone wide and I watch as they make their way back down my face, stopping at my mouth.
She sucks her lower lip into her mouth to keep from smiling.
I press forward, not much but just enough to feel more, the gentle heat of her. Her eyes grow heavy, mouth goes slack, and I watch a pink blush creep up her chest. In the span of one of her tight breaths I go from half hard to desperate for her.
“Fuck,” I growl, bending and pressing my mouth to her neck as I start to rock against her.
I nearly come at the sound she makes, that soft, restrained cry, and I’m fucking her through my clothes, through hers, sucking and licking her skin, just insane to be with her like this.
My need for her ratchets up, climbing from this heated infatuation to something more, something that traps my lungs, threatens to break me.
“I missed this,” I say into her skin. “Fuck, I missed this. The feel of you . . .”
Three rough grinds in and her hands are on my chest, sliding down and over my pecs to the hem of my shirt, where she makes fists in the cotton again.
She could pull it up and off me in a single tug.
I can feel her reaching the fork in the road, and then she hesitates, going still under me. “Luke. Wait. Wait.”
I stop moving, closing my eyes where my face is pressed into her neck.
She pushes at my hips with her fists still around my shirt, pushing me away from her. More than the desperate tension in my body, my heart feels like it might tie itself into a knot.
“We can’t,” she says through a tight exhale. “We shouldn’t.”
I push up off her, sitting back on my heels and watching her scramble to her feet.
“Sorry,” I say. I fucking mean it, too. I know she’s not into me that way, and I keep pushing.
“No, I’m sorry,” she says. “It was me.”
Her hand comes out, gesturing for mine, and I wave it away, pushing myself to stand.
“Ugh, this is awkward,” I say in a quiet growl.
Laughing, she says, “No . . .” in a way that totally means yes.
I don’t really know what to do with myself now. I look to the side, feeling her discomfort and drowning in it.
We look back at each other at the same time. “Do you think we should talk about . . . ?” I ask, trailing off.
“Um, no,” she says, horrified. “I had a moment of weakness, it won’t happen again.”
A moment of weakness? As in, she sort of wants this? “But what if I want to talk?”
“What’s there to say?” she says, shrugging helplessly.
“Just . . .” I pull my thoughts together, sitting down on the couch. “Okay, look. Even when we’re just friends, the fact that we’ve slept together is always hanging between us. I feel it in every second we’re together, and I’m lying if I say I don’t.”
“I figured of anyone you’d be good at pretending it didn’t happen,” she jokes, but it falls flat.
This totally fucking stings, and I let her see it on my face. “Well, I’m not.”
Nodding, she says, “Okay. Sorry.”
“And I know you think I’m a total player—and maybe I deserve that—but I’ve only been with one person since you and—”
“That’s, like, one month, Luke.”
I laugh. “I know, but someday maybe I’ll tell you about how comically horrible it was.” She starts to ask, but I cut her off. “The point is, I’m trying to turn over a new leaf. And it requires reflection, which is sort of new for me . . .” I trail off, feeling like I owe her the chance to make a smart remark, but I’m actually relieved when she doesn’t.
She sits down next to me on the couch, listening.
“But here’s the thing,” I continue, “four years ago, I was really in love with Mia. I thought we were going to be together forever, and I know now that I was young, and it was unrealistic, but when it ended it was hard. I mean, we had been calling each other boyfriend-girlfriend since middle school. I didn’t want to give that kind of energy to just anyone. At first it felt like I’d be”—I look around, searching for words—“I don’t know, cheating, or something, to let myself feel things for someone else, even though Mia and I weren’t together. And then, being with girls in a more casual way was just such a relief. It meant that endings would be easier. It became how I operated. It was an evolution, okay, and I’m not saying that I hate myself for it, because I would be lying, but I have a little bit of hindsight now, and it isn’t how I want to do things anymore.”
She nods, listening with her wide, blue eyes trained on my face. “Okay.”
“So I just wanted you to know.” I lean back, lacing my hands behind my head and staring at the ceiling. “I know your last boyfriend hurt you, and I don’t want you to think all guys are like that. I don’t want you to think I’m like that.”
She nods again, faster now, leaning forward and rubbing her palms together between her knees. She seems a little agitated. I’m inclined to tell her she doesn’t have to talk to me if she doesn’t want to, but the truth is that I don’t really want to let her off the hook if we’re doing the sharing thing right now. London is one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met, but there’s a shell there and I don’t have the sense that she talks to people very often about what’s going on in her head.
The silence feels like it extends for miles, and in a surreal way it seems like the couch elongates between us, making me feel farther away from her the longer she’s quiet. I close my eyes, pushing through it. At some point one of us has to speak, and I swear it will not be me.
Finally, she takes a deep breath and lets it out, slowly. “My dad’s been cheating on my mom since I was sixteen. It’s sort of an unspoken rule in my house that we never talk about it—even though everyone knows.”
I’m initially horrified, but then . . . another piece of the London puzzle falls into place, and it feels like a tiny bomb has just gone off inside my chest. I think of my parents, the way they look at each other, and try to imagine how I would deal with it if I thought all of it was a lie. I can’t. “That’s . . . I’m sorry, Logan.”
“I always told myself—and my mom when we’d argue—that I’d never put up with being treated like that.” A few beats of silence pass before she lets out a long breath and continues. “I’ve known Justin my whole life,” she says. “His mom and my mom are best friends, and we were always close . . . but we didn’t start dating until the summer before our senior year. He moved here with me from Colorado. I went to UCSD and he was at SDSU, even though his first choice was to go to Boulder. But I mean, San Diego has been my second home. I always knew I wanted to go to college out here, and I couldn’t wait to leave Denver.” She goes quiet for a few seconds, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I think it was sort of like how things were with you and Mia, where you just assumed that you’d be together forever.” Looking over at me, she says, “Apparently, he met someone at the beginning of sophomore year and they were all but living together during the week. I found out because I walked in on them.” She pauses, then adds quietly, “Senior year. Right after my grandmother’s funeral. He said he had to work, but . . .”
My stomach bottoms out and I let out a long exhale. “Holy fuck. Your senior year?”
“Yeah. Almost three years he was cheating . . .” She trails off, shaking her head. I can’t even school my expression right now. My mouth is just gaping open. The fucking nerve of this prick.
“And apparently they’re still together,” she says quietly. “Getting married, actually . . . so there’s that.”
My reaction to all of this is to want to punch something. “What a bag of dicks.”
She nods. “It’s taken me a really, really long time to stop feeling pissed off. Actually, I still feel pissed off about it. I think when I give my heart, I want to give everything. You make that decision, and it’s all or nothing, you know?”
She winces when she says this, as if the admission is somehow embarrassing, and my chest is so tight that I’m not even sure how to respond. I want her everything. I want to pummel the asshole who made her feel her love was wasted.
When she realizes I’m struggling to reply, she continues, voice brighter, “Anyway, after I came out of the initial miserable fog of humiliation and heartbreak, the only thing I felt I’d gained was a certainty that I’m a terrible judge of character.”
“London,” I say. “You’re not.”
“Oh, I am.” She smiles at me, and it’s so sweetly fragile that it cracks something in me. Pulling her hair up into a bun on top of her head, she holds it there in both hands. Fuck, it feels so good to talk to her about this. For as much as I’m enraged on her behalf, I’m elated to have her here, and just . . . talking to me in a way I feel she doesn’t with very many people, if anyone.
“I mean,” she says, “I can pick out the obvious assholes. That’s what bartenders learn to do. But the smarter ones just might be better at hiding it. That’s what sucks the most, what I’m actually the angriest about: even if I like someone, I will never trust my judgment. Do you know how that feels? To have been so wrong that it feels like your people meter is just broken?”
The weight of this entire conversation seems to hit me at once, and I slump back against the couch. “That’s significantly depressing,” I agree.
She throws her hands in the air. “I know!”
“It explains a lot about why you’re such a hot mess,” I tell her with a grin, wanting to make her smile again.
“Same,” she says, nodding her chin to me.
“Our relationship histories are totally depressing,” I say. “Tell me something funny.”
She sighs, thinking. Finally, she says, “Vagina roughly translates to sword holder in Latin.”
I turn to look at her. “It was named for the penis?”
“This surprises you?” she asks, looking at me in shock. “Hello? Patriarchy.”
“But even back in the day?” I say. “They spoke Latin. That means everyone knew that vagina meant sword holder. It wasn’t like now where most people don’t know that meaning. A woman would have to refer to her parts as her sword holder. ‘How’s the sword holder?’ ‘Alas, it’s pretty empty right now.’ ”
“Her ‘parts’?” she repeats with an amused grin.
“What?” I ask, smiling back at her. “You called it your ladybird.”
“True.” She lets her head fall back against the couch again, groaning. “Now I’m all gross and sad thinking about Justin. I need sugar.”
“Left side of sink, top cabinet.” She rolls her head to look at me, and I add, “It’s where I keep the treats.”
“Bless you.” London pushes to stand and I stare at her ass as she walks away and into the kitchen. I hear her banging around in the cabinets, and then she yells, “Oh my God! Are you okay?”
I sit up, worried. “Yeah, why?”
“You have an open Pop-Tart package with a Pop-Tart in it.”
I deflate in relief, get off the couch, and wander into the kitchen. “Yeah. I had one this morning.”
Her mouth is agape when she turns to me, holding up the package and saying, “Who the hell has one Pop-Tart?”
“I sense . . .” I lick my finger, holding it up in the air. “Yes, I sense mocking in your tone.”
“I bet you’re one of those yokels who buys the Pop-Tart—sized Tupperware.”
I narrow my eyes, slowly repeating, “ ‘Yokels’?”
“Meaning not only do you not eat both Pop-Tarts like a real man,” she continues, ignoring me, “but you also need an airtight container because you won’t eat the other one within an hour.”
I lean back against the counter, smiling at her.
“I bet you don’t even like scotch,” she teases. “Do you have a real penis?”
This makes me laugh and I have to curl my hands into fists to keep from pulling her close to me with a finger hooked through her belt loop.
Tilting her head, she asks, “Do you order salads for lunch?”
“You’ve seen me eat nachos,” I remind her.
“Once. And they were vegetarian.”
I open my mouth to argue but she cuts me off. “I can see it in your face! You usually order salads. With your dressing on the side!”
This part isn’t actually true but I’m having too much fun watching her unravel to contradict her.
She shakes the Pop-Tart wrapper. “I would eat this Pop-Tart to help you out, you know, to even up the asymmetry currently poisoning your box, but seeing as how there is only one, it’s a snack dilemma.”
Nodding in understanding, I say, “You wouldn’t be satisfied with only one.”
“Exactly.” She shoves it back in the box. “It’s like eating only half a banana.”
I shiver. “Who eats an entire banana?”
London stills, looking at me like I might have damaged my head. “Who doesn’t?”
“Me,” I tell her emphatically. “By the last few bites it’s this awful”—I shudder—“intense banana flavor. It doesn’t matter how big the banana is, I can’t handle it.”
I shrug, palms up. “Apparently. But see, I like to take my time with that one Pop-Tart.” She groans when she registers where I am going with this. “You, on the other hand—”
“—are welcome to have as many Pop-Tarts as you want when you’re here.”
She pins me with a wary half smile and I watch as she fights it, finally giving in and letting the grin take over her entire mouth. My chest feels hot, pulse too fast. It’s like the anticipation before a match but infinitely better. Whatever it is, it makes me drunk on her. Being near her, making her smile makes me feel incredible. She can see it and I let her. I’m fucking drunk on this girl.
Finally, exhaling a shaky breath, she smacks my chest. “You’re hopeless.”
I grab her hand before she can pull it away, resting it on my chest. I know she can feel my heart pounding, and if what I’m watching happen with her pulse in her throat is any indication, her heart is beating just as hard.
I smile, and watch as it softens something in her expression. “I think you’re right,” I tell her.