I think the first time I realized I loved him – well, I shouldn’t use the word love, because I have believed, ever since I was little, that no one really understands what love is, and, being a clumsy, ditzy twenty-something, I certainly have no claim to it. So perhaps I should more precisely state that the first time I realized I felt something greater than mere friendship, and something quite disconcerting and uncomfortable at that, was at the Halloween party.
Not that I actually went to the party, of course. My roommate is, to put it gently, a prude. It’s not her fault, of course, it’s the way she was raised. She can’t wear clothes that expose her collarbone, knees, or elbows, she can’t touch guys, and God forbid you leave her in a locked room with a guy. I’m not sure what would happen but I’m pretty sure nothing good would come of it.
I feel bad whenever I leave her on Saturday night to go to a party, because a girl who refuses to wear a tank top will definitely not go to a party with everyone dressed in underwear and grinding on each other, so I had stayed home on this particular night to help her bake cookies, which we were distributing to people who had been drinking.
(Do chocolate chip cookies go well with beer? I wouldn’t know. My tastes tend more towards caffeinated soft drinks, which definitely do not go well with cookies.)
He appeared shortly after midnight, just as my roommate had exited the kitchen with a fresh batch of baked goodies. It was one of those parties where everyone removes most or all of their clothes, so he was wearing exactly no shirt and one pair of briefs, and when he saw me, I swear he blushed.
(I’m not sure why he blushed. I’ve seen quite a few naked or semi-naked people in my day, but for some reason seeing him, specifically, in a semi-naked state was like seeing him for the first time.)
His mouth formed an O and he stumbled a little when he said, “Ollie. I’m sorry, I’ll leave.”
“You don’t have to leave! Eat a cookie!” If I could have inserted an emoticon I would have.
“But I – I didn’t know you would be here.” He paused. “I’m sorry, that came out awkward.”
“You need a cookie. Cookies solve everything,”
“Especially when you’ve been drinking, huh?” He was meticulously selecting the smallest, most crunchy cookies.
“You have been drinking?”
“Only a little. Three drinks tops. Two here and one at the party, but the party drink was punch … it kind of tasted like they were trying to use up all their leftover liquor. Like cough syrup.” Cue woozy smile. “God knows what chemicals were in that one. Let’s go outside.”
“Luke, it’s 12:30 in the morning.”
“So what? It’s hot in here, man. That oven takes up this entire kitchen, I swear.”
That’s how I ended up in an elevator with Luke Wilkes early on a Sunday morning. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I was thinking, maybe a little, about just how few clothes he was wearing, and the narrowness of his waist. I was also thinking about how it would feel to slide my arms around that slender waist. And really deep down in my mind, underneath all those decidedly non-Ollie thoughts, I was wondering why I hadn’t been thinking those thoughts all along. Maybe I had been. It was getting increasingly hard to remember.
There aren’t many stars in the middle of the night in the middle of a big city in the middle of October. I kept looking up at the sky anyway out of a vague conviction that that was the right thing to do under such circumstances. But really, in all the romantic outdoor nights I’d read about as a girl, there had always been stars in the sky. Also, the man had always worn more clothes than just cotton briefs with a psychedelic pattern. And the woman wasn’t covered in rapidly cooling sweat and cookie crumbs, hair gradually escaping her ponytail in sticky tendrils.
Luke wasn’t looking at the sky. He was crunching his cookies and looking ahead at an angle of perhaps 25 degrees below the horizontal. (I’m in physics, okay, don’t judge.) Thinking about Luke and looking and angles got me to thinking about something else, and like an idiot, I asked it before my brain had even finished processing the thought.
“Are you wearing contacts?”
This was shocking. Luke had notoriously bad vision; without his glasses he was nearly blind, and even his contacts went only so far.
“You don’t need to see when you’re at a party, dumb butt. Just go with the flow of the crowd. Plus, I can still see shapes, colors, and gradients of light.”
“So your life is an abstract painting.”
“It’s really weird, you know. I feel like there’s a certain combination of tiredness and intoxication that makes the universe make sense.” He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. I looked down at his bare back and again felt that strange urge to touch it, to feel the muscles and smooth skin and the small ridges of his backbone, and that’s when I noticed his skin was covered in goosebumps.
“Are you cold, Luke?”
“Hmm? A little, I guess. Mostly because I’m only wearing underwear and it’s October twenty-eighth.”
“Twenty-ninth, now. Do you want to go inside?”
“And miss out on this? Of course not.” He looked up at me, his pale eyelashes feathery in the light of the streetlamps.
My heart was beating a little faster than usual for a reason I could not fathom. Why is it that in these situations one’s heart always knows what is going on before one’s mind does?
“You’re right, you know.” Shitbiscuits, do I have a problem with blurting out half-formed thoughts. Blurting prematurely, as a character in my favorite sitcom would have said.
“About what?” And when did he get so close to me? Since when was he looking, not at me, but into me?
“Everything making sense,” I said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m standing still and time is rushing away from me, into the past. People’s faces get blurred. Memories fade as soon as they happen. And that’s when I remember that it won’t matter to the universe, not tomorrow and not in a million years, what I do or don’t do. It’s a thought that’s terrifying and comforting at the same time. And I wonder why I’m so afraid of doing so much.”
“I understand,” said Luke. Then, “Do you have freckles?”
“Yes?” He was close enough now that I could feel the coolness radiating from his skin.
“When did you get them?”
“I’ve always had them, you dork. Ever since I can remember. I don’t like them because they’re pale and weird looking and the biggest one is right under my left eye and is shaped like a teardrop. I’m destined to go through life looking like a gang member.” Shut up, Ollie, you’re babbling again.
“I think they’re charming,” he said, and touched my face, his right thumb resting right on my teardrop freckle and his head tilted, in the way that most people’s heads do right before they kiss, at a thirty-degree angle from the vertical.
I was expecting him to kiss me. I really wanted him to kiss me, even though he had been drinking and was therefore off limits for any girl with morals, and even though he was in normal life just Luke Wilkes, my lab partner and next-door neighbor, and even though I could already see him sliding away from me as I closed my eyes.
But at the last second, just before our lips touched, he mumbled, “Sorry,” and kissed my cheek instead.
“Why are you sorry?” I said, my blush, which should have started in the kitchen, just arriving.
“I taste like alcohol and cookies,” he said, bowing his head so his face was hidden from me by a wall of white-blond hair.
I don’t know what possessed me to do it. Maybe it was the late hour, or the sugar molecules I had been inhaling all evening, or just his presence that gave me courage, but I reached out and tilted his chin up, like the men in those romantic stories did, only I was tired of waiting.
“Luke Wilkes, you are my favorite person,” I said, and kissed him.