“How’s this for clear?” I said, tracing her beautiful mouth with my fingers, unable to keep from touching her lips. I just wanted to kiss her, but that’s all I’d done the first time, and my intent wasn’t, apparently, as obvious as I’d thought. Emma needed words. Declarations. We were more similar than I’d given us credit for, and I trusted in that knowledge and gave them to her. “I haven’t wanted anyone but you since the night we met. And as much as I value our friendship… being friends with you is not what I have in mind.”
Her eyes widened and her breath caught as I slid my knuckles across the soft skin of her jaw, curled my fingers and cupped her chin in my hand. When I leaned my face to hers, her eyelids fluttered closed, and in that seemingly trivial movement I felt her surrender and acceptance. That was the turning point, the precise split second when I knew.
I forced myself to go slow, inhaling the emotion behind her response as decidedly as I inhaled her sweet breath. My tongue skimmed her lower lip, tasting her gently while I reminded myself repeatedly that I could not press her to the corner of the booth, that I could not pull her beneath me and unleash every pent-up desire I’d held in check for months.
Very little of my restraint had to do with the fact that we were in a public place. I’d never been so uncaring of that fact, to tell the truth.
The kiss in her room the night before had almost broken me, but I’m practiced in denying myself what I know I can’t have. She was having none of my caution this morning. Her hands twisting in my t-shirt, she opened her mouth, cracking my control like a hammer against glass. I kissed her deeply, my mind going fuzzy and refusing to allow my logical side any say whatsoever. She curled into me—I don’t even know how—just that we were suddenly a knot of torsos and limbs, her knees pulled up and folded against my side, my arms around her, one hand at her nape and the other pressing her lower back as though it was possible for us to be closer.
My only thought was more of a feeling than a conscious deliberation: Mine. Mine. Mine.
We broke the kiss to breathe, and I hated that I needed air at all. Exploring her mouth was so much better than breathing. I rested my forehead against hers, both of us panting like we used to at the end of an uphill sprint. Our daily runs in Austin were a lifetime ago—those weeks I thought she belonged to Reid Alexander, or soon would. My fears and insecurities pressed into the space between us as I watched her eyes open and focus slowly. I wondered then, if she pulled away, if I could take it. If I could survive losing her again.
“Huh,” she said, blinking her gray-green eyes, and I almost laughed with relief. That non-word of hers was a code I knew by heart, and when she uttered it in that moment it was an unguarded secret set of instructions I knew how to follow. And follow it I did.
“You know, I think I’d prefer you keep that particular habit after all,” I told her before I pulled her closer and kissed her again.
I was sure I would never love anyone as much as I loved Zoe.
Something about first love defies duplication. Before it, your heart is blank. Unwritten. After, the walls are left inscribed and graffitied. When it ends, no amount of scrubbing will purge the scrawled oaths and sketched images, but sooner or later, you find that there’s space for someone else, between the words and in the margins.
I accepted some time ago that for me, that someone else was my daughter, Cara. The conclusion seemed reasonable at the time. She was the only tangible thing that survived that tumultuous relationship, and the only piece of Zoe I was allowed to keep in the end.
I called Zoe the day after she told me it was over to ask her why, and what I’d done, and if I could do something, anything to win her back. I thought we were in love—that whatever it was that made her end it, I could fix. Neither of us knew yet that she was pregnant.
“Why are you trying to make me feel bad?” she asked. “This is hard for me, too.”
I took a controlled breath. “Doesn’t seem that way.” Earlier that day I’d passed her in the hall as she leaned against her locker, flirting with a couple of our classmates, guys whom summer had turned into men. The same couldn’t be said for me. Though Zoe and I were both seniors, she was more than a year older. My summer birthday and the skipped grade in elementary school meant I’d only been sixteen for four months. I wouldn’t turn seventeen until a couple of weeks after graduation.
She huffed an exaggerated sigh. “Jeez, Graham—I’m in fourth-year theatre, you know. I can act like I’m fine when I’m not.”
No way was she acting when Ross Stewart, varsity wrestling team hero, made some teasing comment and she giggled up at him, batting her lashes, her small hand on his ham of a forearm. It had been less than twenty-four hours since our breakup. I was hoarse from crying for half the night, and she was smiling and flirting, her eyes as bright blue as always.
“What can I do, Zoe? Did I do something wrong? If you’ll just talk to me, tell me what you need me to do—”
“Graham, there’s nothing you can do. I’m just not, you know, attracted to you anymore. This decision is about me and my feelings. Not you.”
I’m not attracted to you anymore sure sounded like it was about me. I felt as if she’d kicked me through the phone. Zoe had been my first everything, though I hadn’t been hers—a fact that had never bothered me. I’d been a willing enough pupil, and despite our arguments and a multitude of misunderstandings, I thought we were good together. Right up until she broke my heart.