I lose complete track of time at Taryn’s and by the time I was tucked up in bed, it was a quarter past one in the morning. Our evening was filled with numerous discussions and laughter. After discovering that we support the same football team, Marcus no longer saw me as a threat. For at least almost two hours, we feverishly discussed the ins and outs of our allied team and completely forgot about Taryn in the other room. Every once in a while she would pop in and give us both a smile and return to the kitchen. For fear of being rude, I part company with my newly acquired football buddy to find Taryn in the kitchen slaving over our meal. I open the door to her expansive kitchen and I am instantly met with the sweet smell of a Sunday roast dinner.
“Mmhh, smells delicious. Tell me this feast isn’t all for my benefit,” as I attempt to sample the gravy, “I would be flattered though,” I say as I flash her a deep smile, trying to see if I can get away with having a taste.
She giggles, “Wouldn’t you like to think so…,” sticks her tongue out and continues, “unfortunately it isn’t all about you. Marcus and I always have a roast meal on a Sunday, our British roots, I suppose. My dad used to insist on this EVERY Sunday, so I guess it’s only natural that even though I’ve moved away I still keep it up. I hope you like a roast meal because it’s a bit too late now.”
“From the few times I’ve had it, yes, but I’m sure I’ll like it even more if you’re making it,” I couldn’t help smiling like a Cheshire Cat as I lick more gravy off my finger.
“Oh, you flatter me. It’s probably nothing like my dad’s but if you keep complimenting me like this, you may just get the honour to try his roast one day.”
“Lucky me. So, is there anything I can do to help? I feel like I’ve barely seen you.”
“Well that’s because you seem to have a budding relationship with my brother, I didn’t want to be the third wheel and intrude on your budding romance” she replied comically.
“Oh, yea? You think I have a chance with him? Shame really, because it’s not him I had my eye on,” I express as I make my way over to her. I place my hands on her shoulders and tilt her face up towards mine, lowering my voice, “We never finished where we left off…”. I begin planting kisses along her hairline, past her ears, down to her chin, finally resting on her partially parted lips. As I deepen my kiss, Taryn let’s out a low, raspy growl, as her breathing quickened, I knew I had an effect on her, if not emotionally, I did physically as well. I begin to lower my hands from her face and make my way to the nape of her neck and down her back, taking in her sweet smell; she really was intoxicating.
“Hey lover boy, do you mind not feeling up my sister when I’m in the same room?” Marcus bellows laughingly. I instantly stiffen up, but Taryn pulls her hips closer to mine and slowly turns her head to address her brother.
“Dude, you jealous you guys didn’t get hot and heavy over football stats? You’re in MY house, make yourself useful and set the table for us, and besides he’s my boyfriend, he can kiss me like that whenever he wants,” the last words, she addresses to me, but somehow the only part which registered was the word boyfriend. Boyfriend…I don’t know which part excited me more, the part where she calls me her boyfriend or the part where I like it.
“Oh god. Well, I guess it’s only right that I’m leaving now anyway…it was nice to meet you, Jon. Hopefully, there are no hard feelings over me pulling your leg earlier,” he throws me a wink.
I laugh, “No, no. None at all. I’m just glad I get to leave here with said leg.”
“Don’t be so confident, you haven’t even gotten to second base with Taryn ye-,” he is quickly interrupted by his sister.
“HEY! Watch it!!,” she was reddening, “Here. I packed you supper for the road. Now go on and get out of here, before I am forced to hurt you.”
“Smooth recovery T…real smooth,” he gives Taryn a hug, kisses her on the forehead, shakes my hand and says his goodbyes.
After a few minutes of pensive silence, as if both of us wanted to make sure Marcus was well and truly gone, Taryn looks up at me and says, “I like having you here. Like this. I like cooking for you…it feels good…comfortable.”
Her candidness takes me by surprise, but I welcome it, I was embracing the level of openness we were setting for ourselves, which was so foreign to me. “I like being here. With you. There’s something about your presence which puts me at ease. I need this…I think I need you,” I state as I scratch my head awkwardly.
“Jon. Don’t be ridiculous,” she begins to blush and sets down the pot spoon from which she is serving out the roasted potatoes. “We barely know each other, I’m not saying that what we both feel isn’t real and that it’s not fun making out with you. And I’m also not saying that I will reject you if it goes any further…I don’t know. I just mean, you can’t possibly need me, you seem to be doing just fine before me, don’t sell yourself short. I’m not really sure what I can offer you?” she looks up expectantly.
In that instance, I would of told her everything; about the anxiety and depression, I faced after Sofia’s death and then more so after Isabelle’s suicide. I would have told her this was the first time in 4 years that I have socialized in ANY way. I would have told her about how work was my only light until her call. I would have told her how I recently found out that my two best friends are breaking up. Had she posed the right questions, I might have even gone deeper and told her about my father, his expectations and disappointments with me. About Richard and his tragic death. I would have told her all of it, but instead, I laugh it off and say, “Oh, because somewhere at sometime, something bad ALWAYS happens to me. Trust me,” wanting to change the subject quickly, I ask, “Now when do I get to taste this lovely food of yours?,” as I take a step closer and kiss her cheek, attempting to soften the blow.
“I could be mean and force you to open up, but I know better than that. Help me set the table and I’ll finish plating up.” She didn’t seem offended, but I’m not foolish enough to believe she hadn’t taken note of my apprehension and that she wouldn’t ask me at a later date.
What I anticipated for the end of my weekend, was waking up in Taryn’s ruffled sheets, with her leg heavily draped across mine after a night of explosive sex; in reality what I got was probably what I actually needed- her company. Dinner was spent asking gently probing questions, much like a first date, but without the awkwardness. I learnt that I loved her voice much more than I thought I did, the breathy way she pronounced certain words proved to be a huge distraction. She divulged to me that her longest relationship was five years, her most recent being a year ago, her move to Brampford was partly for a fresh start, but also to get away from her ex-partner. When it came to my turn, I gave her the standard information about my life and Isabelle, how we met, how long we were together and the date we were no longer a couple, choosing specifically to avoid revealing that she had taken her own life. Even after all these years, I still feel the guilt and sense of responsibility towards Sofia and Isabelle, I should have been able to save their lives and I didn’t. My discomfort on the subject must have been apparent to Taryn, because she interjected while I was droning on, off topic about how Greg and I got the practice up and running.
“I’m sorry Jon, I don’t want to be rude and I certainly don’t want to offend you, we’ve had such a great evening and I am very much enjoying listening and learning about you and your life, but I just have to ask you something…”, she lays her hand gently on mine and instantly my heart rate increases. On one hand, her touch excites me, but mostly in anticipation of her next words. “I know there’s more, I can feel it and I can see it behind your eyes. I don’t want to pry, I just want to tell you that we will get to the point where you’ll be comfortable to tell me and it won’t be met with any judgement”, she bends down and leaves a soft kiss on the back of my hand.
Suddenly, a wave of my emotions erupts and floods my ears, all I could hear was the beating of my racing heart. Taryn’s words, though she would never know it from my stoic appearance, were slowly but steadily chipping away at the walls I had built around myself. Whether it was our chemistry, her soothing voice or the calm I felt in her presence, I knew then that I would love again and that it would be her.
Later that night as I undressed for bed, I couldn’t help but think about how quickly our relationship had progressed in such a short period of time, yet I felt so open and vulnerable with her. As I stared at the clock, one fifteen am, knowing I really should get some sleep, but with her words playing in my head, I couldn’t settle. How does she know she’ll accept me no matter what, people say that but do they truly mean it? Sigh. Did I really need to start this? Whatever it is, when in so many ways I don’t feel ready? Would I ever be ready? Five years is a long time, surely it was now or never. I’m thirty-three and yet I feel so weathered. How did I get so old? When did I stop living? She made me feel alive, visible. Grr. Get some sleep Pierce, you’ll need it to face your so-called best friend in the morning.
With that, I roll over and instantly fall into a deep sleep, but morning comes much too quickly and when my alarm jolts me- I knew it was going to be a long day. I hastily make my bed, hop into a hot shower, get dried and dressed in under 20 minutes-I wanted to be sure to have a cup of coffee in my system by the time Greg made his way downstairs. Unfortunately, like a tick, he knew just how to get under my skin and was sat at the breakfast bar making a protein shake when I enter the kitchen. I grumble under my breath.
“Hey hey!! You actually slept in your own BED last night?! If there’s one thing I can give you, Jon, it’s that you have tremendous self-control! If it was me, I would have tapped that ass the moment she walked into the office! Want some of my shake?”, he bellowed much too early for a Monday morning.
“Isn’t that what got you in trouble in the first place, Greg? I guess that’s where we differ; you slept with most of the cheer-leading team, not to mention the two potential girlfriends I lost because of you. And no, I would much rather coffee. Strong by the looks of it,” I reply through gritted teeth.
“You’re going to have to get over that. They wouldn’t have been great matches for you anyways. Trust me on that.” He glugs his smoothie and lets out a loud burp. “Besides, you make it seem like a bad thing, I explored and I saw sights, just because it was in a girl’s panties doesn’t make it any less important. Between the two of us, someone had to do it.”
“Oh, so you took one for the team, huh?” I ask irritatingly. “Where does Leelah fit into all of this?! And now your future child?!? Where do they fit into this…this.. immature jock routine?”, I chuckle to myself. “You cheated on her in college Greg, I have always been against it, but I figured it was the environment, but now?!? I cannot believe you were in a relationship with ANOTHER woman! For how many years?! That’s low. Even for you”, I take a swig of coffee, even it tasted bitter.
“That’s the problem with you Jon, you’re always so perfect. You see everything in such idealistic lenses. I don’t love her. I never did, but I knew how much you did. I could see it the moment you met at McCloud’s. I knew…I know, I’ll never be able to have that, someone to look at me the way she did…the way she does,” he takes the last big gulp of his shake and slams the container onto my marble countertop. “I should have ended our relationship years ago, but when Isabelle died, it was bad timing and my jealousy for you was reignited because I knew Isabelle’s death would have brought you and Lee closer,” he snorted, “Some friend, huh?”
“Yea, you’re the mother fucking best,” I snap and put my coffee down abruptly, some lukewarm liquid escapes onto my hands and the counter. “I can’t do this with you right now. Clean up your mess and I don’t just mean the one in my kitchen.” I make my way down the hallway as I hear him laugh out loud, in that instant- I don’t know what gets into me, but I stride back into my kitchen and punch Greg with all of the pre-breakfast strength I can muster. I take him completely by surprise, as his body flies back onto my sink, knocking over a few glasses. He lifts his startled eyes to find mine, filling with bewilderment. “I think you fully deserved that”, I snipe and storm out of the house and into my car. At that moment, I was happy for the 20-minute commute; I was almost looking forward to facing traffic and that was certainly out of character for me.
Luckily, Greg and I manage to completely avoid each other until about three thirty, when we both assumed the other would take their three o’clock brew earlier, only to find the very opposite had occurred. As I walk into the kitchen, his back facing the door, I hesitate, trying to consider if my tea was important enough. He must have sensed it was me based on the reluctance to enter the room.
“What, you don’t want to see your handy work?,” he asks cheerily as he stirs his coffee, I could actually hear the grin on his face.
“Not if it means I have to hear you prattle on. I only came for a tea,” I reply as I make my way to the water dispenser. As I take the few steps over, Greg turns around and my eye meets his face, the bridge of his nose had a slice in it and the beginnings of a bruise was forming in and around his left eye. I try and act nonchalantly like I didn’t assault my best friend and business partner.
“You gave me a pretty good shiner, now it’s not just Lee I have to be scared of,” I don’t see the humour in his self-deprecating joke, so I ignore it.
Nonetheless, the doctor in me takes over, “you experiencing any head pain or blurred vision?”
“Wow Dr Pierce, I’ll be fine- it’s not my first shiner and I’ve had worse, so with all due respect fuck off,” he replies through gritted teeth and walks out of the kitchen.
Relieved not to have to converse with him any longer, I lean back against the counter and begin to wait the minute it takes for the water dispenser to reach boiling. My contentment to be with my own thoughts is short-lived, as I am jolted by the cackling of June’s booming voice. It makes me chuckle, that laugh- it’s legendary. As I’m pouring the hot water into my cup, Sam enters the kitchen.
“Hi Sam, how’s your day going?”
“Hello Dr Pierce, it’s going fine, thanks,” she pauses. This always happened when Sam and I were in the same room, I struggled to make conversation with her. “Umm…Dr. Pierce, is there a chance…we may lose our jobs?”
“I’m sorry, Sam- what do you mean?,” I take a sip of my tea.
“Well, you and Dr Wingham have been at odds for what seems like weeks now…and I guess June and I are worried, you guys will fall out for good and close the practice and we’ll lose our jobs,” she rushed out.
“Yea…I can understand your worries, but we’re not disagreeing to the point where the practice is in jeopardy. If it were to come to that- I would find a way for it to work out, I won’t let a disagreement come in the middle of it. I promise you have my word,” I flash her a reassuring smile.
“Oh ok, thank you for clearing that up. It’s not something I would have began to ask Dr Wingham.”
“Yea, I get that- trust me. But, if I may be so frank- I don’t think it’s a good idea to be anything more than professional with Greg, it can possibly put you in a compromising position. To clarify, if he were single, I would have no issue with it. Honestly.” As the words leave my mouth, I felt like the biggest hypocrite.
The next few weeks were tough on Greg; the damage was already too far gone, Lee stood her ground and Greg was forced to move into a bachelor pad in the city centre, his chosen location of course. Lee offered to pay him out for the property in order to ease her transition into motherhood, but Greg’s bitterness wouldn’t rescind and they were forced to go down the legal route. Throughout their open and dramatic fight, I attempted to remain out of their argument, particularly as things were happily progressing with Taryn and I was in a good place, I didn’t need this to bring me down. I know that my friends might need me, but the truth was that I couldn’t face Lee. I was wrapped up in mixed emotions. For the majority of my college life, I lived in Greg’s shadows as I secretly loved Lee, I’m sure she knew this. So for the first time in over a decade, Lee was available, Greg was no longer in my way. Ignoring how things were going with Taryn, we were still in the early stages of getting to know each other. Leelah knew me, she knew all of the baggage I carried along with me; this was an opportunity for me to finally tell her how I felt. It had been a long time coming.
Two weeks after their break up, I give Lee a call and ask her to meet up, she agrees and we go to dinner to The Pincho, a tapas restaurant in the centre of town, it was one of her favourites. The days leading up to it, I try to not be nervous, but this was a moment I had built up in my mind for so long and I wasn’t sure what I wanted the outcome to be. I chose not to tell Taryn the reason for my having dinner with Lee, mainly because I wasn’t sure myself just how to articulate it. I arrive at the restaurant early, as per usual and order a glass of wine and a virgin margarita for Lee, I knew she’d appreciate it. A couple minutes later she strolls into the restaurant glowing. She is wearing a flowing lavender coloured dress and bright red lipstick, pregnancy really did suit her. Instantly, I am much more nervous. What was I doing? I recently began a relationship with a woman who excited me and makes me feel more alive than I have felt in years and yet I am about to sit across from my secret college sweetheart and profess a love I have contained for her. I really did like to self-sabotage.
“Oh my Lee, you look radiant!,” I greet her.
“You think so? I certainly don’t feel it these days and I’m only about half way there! But thanks anyway, you’re so sweet,” her hand lingers on my upper arm. I blush.
“How have you been?,” I pose as we both take our seats.
“Meh, do we really need to bring Greg up this soon into our dinner?” she pauses as she looks down.
“I figured we’d address the elephant and cheater in the room and move swiftly on,” I attempt to have her crack a smile.
She obliges, she always did with me, “Yea, well. It looks like he’s finally willing to settle over the numbers and I can finally start decorating the nursery. I didn’t want to start in case I’d have to eventually move. But, other than the bickering, I am emotionally happy. We clearly weren’t right for each other, it just took me longer and being cheated on to realise that.” She takes a sip of her margarita.
“I really am sorry Lee, I had no idea it had gotten this bad,” I reach for her hand and she lets me, “If I had known I would have tried to stop him.”
“It’s not your fault. Short of putting his man part back into his pants, I’m not sure there was much you could do. It’s done with now; I don’t want to linger on it. I’m trying to reduce my stress levels.” She seemed to be doing a remarkable job emotionally.
“Oh, of course, I can understand. Is there anything you need me to do? I can be you temporary boyfriend…,” I was dropping the hints as I flash her a toothy smile.
In this instance, the waiter shows up to take our orders and our conversion is halted, but I can see she is blushing. Once he leaves, there is a long pause.
“Jon…I don’t want you to feel…,” she starts.
“No, let me say something. I don’t know if you might have suspected it over the years, but I have always loved you, Leelah. I loved you from the moment you walked into our philosophy class, with the wrong books, to your odd dress sense or the fact that you never like to lose an argument. You were always it for me, I just let other people get in the way of that, Greg at first and then Isabelle. She was a by-product because I couldn’t have you-”
“Omg, don’t say that!,” she interrupts, but I carry on, I was rushing.
“It’s the truth. I settled for her because it meant that I could be closer to you, maybe that makes me a horrible person, I don’t know…it’s been a tough time for you and I can’t expect you to know what you want just yet, but I had to let you know. I had to see if you had even a slither of something for me?,” I finally look up from my rambling.
“Well I’d be lying if I hadn’t suspected it years ago, but now? After all this time? I’m speechless…you’re one of my best friends, you were married to my best friend…I’m 6 months pregnant with your best friend’s child- it’s actually kind of ridiculous…I really don’t know what to say…” She was stumbling with her words, something very uncommon for Lee, so I knew I had caught her off guard. With the feeling of dread slowly creeping up and wanting to at least salvage the evening somewhat, I try to save face.
“I know it’s a lot and you have a lot on your plate and it might be extremely bad timing. If you need time, say so- it’s not something you can answer now…I just wanted to be open and honest with you and really get it off my chest, which I have to admit is somewhat selfish. I’ve started seeing Taryn, things are looking up and then this happened with you and Greg and I just figured I’d like to explore this…things with you before the door shut on it for good….”
“You mean, you figured as I’m pregnant and emotionally vulnerable from having an ass for an ex, that you would be my saving grace and date me out of pity, all the while living out your college wet dreams?” she reached for her drink again.
“Not exactly how I’d put it…,” this took a turn.
“Look, Jon, I have to say- it feels nice to get dolled up and go out for a meal with a friend and that’s it for me- you’re a friend. The history between us is far too murky and complex for me to even begin to think of you any other way…I’m really sorry. I hope I didn’t hurt you too much…”
“No need to apologise, that’s how you feel, it’s honest. I’d rather you tell me now rather than try to save face. I can’t expect the feelings to be the same on both our sides, I was friend-zoned from the beginning. Don’t worry about it- honestly, nothing will change between us. I swear. Scouts honour.” I smile, but inside I would be lying if I said I wasn’t crushed. For years, my decisions with Isabelle revolved around Leelah, if she said I should take our relationship to the next level, I did so. If she said I should buy her a particular present, I did so-everything for me began and ended with Lee; she just never knew. So to hear her state that she never saw me other than a friend definitely stung.
The rest of the evening went on smoothly considering I didn’t get what I came for, but if all I wanted to do was a to set the record straight and to let Lee know how I truly felt, then I should be happy because I didn’t have to carry that burden around any longer. Thankfully this wasn’t a typical “first date”, Lee and I have the luxury of friendship and history behind us, so we were able to skim past the awkward tension, at least on the surface.
We said our goodbyes at the restaurant, but on the drive home I couldn’t help but feel physically tired. I had built this day up in my head for many years, I hadn’t even given time to consider the fact that Lee wouldn’t feel the same way. What was I thinking to pick into an old wound when I have a budding romance with Taryn? Why was I choosing what I knew to be safe, over the unknown? How accurate were my feelings for the current Lee over the Lee I fell in love with in college? Should I really be risking a stable friendship over a potential new relationship? For Christ sake Jon, how can you be so overzealous? I’m usually the one over thinking life itself before I take the first step, yet I decide on a whim to reveal my true feelings to one of my best friends. I was suddenly very tired and couldn’t wait to get home.
For the next couple weeks, I check in on Lee but keep it very cordial, I wanted to give her space, but I also didn’t want to show her how hurt I was by her rejection. Work trickled on without any major issues, oddly this was the most focused I had seen Greg in years. Don’t get me wrong, he was still a jerk, but he was in the office longer and was actually working for a change. Taryn and I, on the other hand, had agreed the office would remain professional- but outside of the office, we saw each other almost daily. I couldn’t get enough of her, she captivated so much of my full attention at times it felt overwhelming. Despite us seeing each other almost daily, we hadn’t officially labelled ourselves as exclusive or a couple. I hadn’t told mother about her; I was fearful of speaking Taryn and I into existence because maybe it would trigger something bad. My life had already been so full of tragedy- I really didn’t think I could cope with another one, especially when I was feeling so good. I knew I couldn’t keep it from mother much longer, after all, she already knew Taryn existed, she had met her ever so briefly and she would be extremely hurt if I hadn’t at least attempted to keep her in the loop. So, on a whim one Tuesday afternoon, I decided it was the best time to give mother a call and lay the groundwork to telling her that Taryn and I had gotten closer and were potentially an item. I didn’t want to tell mother explicitly because she asks far too many questions and would most likely begin planning a trip over and become her usual over-excited self.
“Hi mother, how are you?”
“Oh, Jonathan, my love! I’m great, just having a manicure with Judith. How are you, sweetie. You feeling any better?”
“Yes Mother, I’ve actually been sleeping very well,” I try to hold back my smile.
“Well! Do tell. What’s been helping you sleep?” she sounded like she already knew.
“…right…well…you remember Taryn? We’ve been seeing a lot of each other…,” I clear my throat, “I just wanted to let you know that we’re kind of dating. It’s nothing serious, I just wanted to let you know, because it’s been a long time and I know you’ve been asking me for a while…”
“Ah, I see…well it’s about damn well time, Jonathan. I was beginning to think that you had changed sides or sworn off women all together!” she updates Judith about my news and comes back to the phone. “I’m glad you called to let me know, unlike your last relationship. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself, take it slow and don’t compare her to Isabelle.”
“Thanks, mom, I’ll try not to. Just taking it day by day- we’re enjoying each other’s company, nothing to label just yet.”
“Would you want that again? That life? Are you really ready to jump, both feet in?”
“I feel like I am…with her, yes. She’s opened me up to feelings, I had ignored for so many years.”
“Jonathan! Don’t make me tear up at the salon! You’re warming my heart! I could tell that you really liked her, so it’s no surprise you’ve seen more of each other. She’s gorgeous and intelligent, I’d snap her up as well! I’m just surprised Gregory didn’t try to get in her pants,” she scoffs.
“Yea, not sure she’s his type. She’s far too opinionated,” I chuckle. “I don’t even know if she’s my type. She’s not like anyone I have ever dated.”
“That’s because she’s a gem,” she smiled. “So, when do I get to actually meet her- properly. And in a setting where she’s less likely to sneak away.”
“Touche Mother. Well, the office will close for summer break in a couple of weeks, I haven’t asked her what her plans were, but maybe we could come down for a visit? I’m well overdue to see the Brownstone, especially before you pack it up and sell it.”
“Johnathan, I’m only having it appraised. Nothing is set in stone yet, besides, I might have a use for it just yet.”
“Subtle mom, real subtle.”
We made loose plans, on the promise that we’d iron them out closer to the date and I hang up to Taryn’s smiling face at my office door.
“Care to do supper?” she asks?
“I’m in!” I say excitedly as I shut down my desktop and grab my keys.