We continued nibbling on the Chinese food, sharing bites of each dish straight from the cartons for several minutes, eating in a comfortable silence.
“So what do you want to do when you graduate next year?” he asked.
I swallowed down the bite of egg roll, wondering if his question was as innocent as it seemed, or if it was laced with speculation on the future—our future—as I’d feared all along. I wasn’t ready to come clean with him just yet. Baby steps. “Um, I don’t know. I hope to teach at a university and continue my research. What about you?”
“Definitely staying in Chicago near my mom and sister, getting a good-paying job and hopefully settling down with the right girl. Bob here isn’t going anywhere, either,” he rubbed the dog’s back. “And eventually a family of my own, too.”
My heart jumped at the mention of a family and I roughly swallowed down a mouthful of food that had somehow transformed into a tasteless lump in my mouth.
Wordlessly I retired to bed a short while later, and slept soundly nestled into the sheets that smelled of Cohen and our sweaty sexcapades.
My plan had backfired on me. I wasn’t sure if I’d been trying to call his bluff, or just playing a cruel game of chicken with his heart, but Cohen hadn’t backed down. He’d raised the stakes—considerably—by giving himself to me, along with his heart on a platter.
I released a frustrated sigh and scrubbed my hands across my face, curling into a pathetic ball on my couch. I should have realized the significance. I should have stopped him. But of course, in that moment, I couldn’t have stopped even if I’d wanted to. My brain hadn’t been working clearly, and the responses he provoked from my body boggled even me. I never had multiple orgasms. Ever. As in not once. But leave it to sweet, inexperienced Cohen to milk every ounce of pleasure he could from my body. I was starting to become convinced this was some kind of conspiracy. He used my own body against me.
Over the past several years I’d rebuilt myself from the ground up, not stopping until a full personality makeover was complete. And somehow the other night I’d spent with Cohen had unraveled some of my work. Whereas Eliza had preferred tea, Liz became a coffee connoisseur. Eliza always wore flats, Liz purchased a killer selection of heels and learned to walk in them without stumbling—much. Eliza was loving and devoted, Liz lived for fun, no attachments and keeping things casual.
I’d been acting like this whole other person for so long, even I hardly remembered the small town girl I’d been. And Ashlyn had certainly never met her. But somehow Cohen sensed she was still inside me, even insisting on calling me Eliza, which was odd.
I heard the doorbell and my stomach dropped. There was no hiding my tear-streaked face and red, puffy eyes. Crap. I pulled open the door and met Ashlyn’s worried gaze.
“Lizzie,” she squeaked, pushing in past me. “What’s the matter? You missed our coffee date.” She lifted the large iced Americano she was holding for me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, half-heartedly. For once not even coffee sounded good.
I waved at her to follow me inside and into the living room, where I collapsed onto the couch. My townhouse was a mess. Though it was nothing like Ashlyn’s crazy version of housekeeping, for me, it was a wreck—used tissues littered the coffee table, cold mugs of tea sat untouched and several pieces of mail and a couple of magazines lay scattered on the floor. I’d seen Cohen outside jogging with Bob, and I’d grabbed my mail and scampered back into the house, fumbling and dropping the items at my feet. My heart had alternated between thundering in my chest and clenching in pain—especially when he hadn’t come after me.
Not that I’d really been expecting him to, I guess. That was two days ago now, and I still didn’t know what to say to him.
After that blissful night with him, I’d left early the following morning while he was still asleep and hadn’t returned his calls in the days that followed. I knew it was shitty of me, but I needed to get my head on straight. It felt like everything was collapsing around me, and if and when I told Cohen the truth about me, I didn’t know if I could handle his rejection.
“What’s wrong? Boy troubles?” Ashlyn asked, settling into an oversized armchair.
“Something like that,” I mumbled and curled my feet up onto the seat underneath me.
“Are you still seeing Stu?” Her face was a mask of worry. Crease lines etched into her forehead as she leaned forward and studied me.
“God, no. I’ve been done with him for a while.” Gross. I couldn’t believe she thought I’d be this upset over Stu. I hadn’t even thought about him in weeks.
She moved to sit beside me on the couch and rubbed my back, soothingly. “Then what is it, sweetie? It’s not like you to get so upset.”
I cleared my throat, and wiped both cheeks with my sleeves. “It’s Cohen. We had sex.” Twice.
Ashlyn’s breath left her chest in a rush. “Oh crap. And? Was it horrible? Awkward?”
“Oh God, no. Nothing like that. It was better than I could have ever imagined.” I’d set my expectations low, never imagining Cohen would be as naturally gifted as he was.
She raised her eyebrows, impressed. “So are you guys together now?”
That was the problem. I didn’t know how to face Cohen now, how to say what I needed to say. “There’s something I’ve never told you.”
“What is it, Liz? You know you can tell me anything.”
I nodded slowly, somberly and mumbled that I’d be right back. I didn’t need to tell her so much as I needed to show her. Only this would explain why my feelings for Cohen terrified me.
I went into my bedroom and came back carrying an ornate silver box engraved with the word Love. I realized for the first time that keeping my love boxed up was more than just a metaphor. I set the box on her lap and then sat down next to her.
Ashlyn lifted the lid and looked quizzically down inside at the velvet lining. She lifted the simple gold ring and held it up to the light. “It’s beautiful, but I don’t understand.”
I pulled a shaky breath into my lungs, fighting down emotion I thought I’d buried completely. “I was engaged once.”
Ashlyn’s stunned silence betrayed her hurt feelings that I’d kept this from her.
I’d wanted to tell her before, all the times she’d laughed at how carefree I was, or scoffed about me being a commitment-phobe. It’d been on my mind countless times, I just never knew quite what to say. And of course it’d been on my mind the night she’d thrust her large, sparkling diamond ring in my face.
“I was twenty.” I smiled lightly at the memory. “I was a sophomore in college and trust me, I’d never intended to get engaged so young. But then you never got to meet Paul.”
She watched me, her expression one of concern.
“He was perfect, Ash. Beyond perfect. He was two years older than me. I met him when I was seventeen—he was a busboy at my parent’s country club, and definitely not good enough to date their daughter as far as they were concerned. But he won them over eventually. He was sweet, and kind and well-mannered. He’d help my mom clear the dishes after dinner and could talk sports with my dad. He was my first…everything.”
I cleared my throat, realizing I’d gotten a little lost in my own story. I could still see Paul’s crooked smile the first time he showed me the cursive E he’d had tattooed over his heart. Paul was the reason I started going by Liz. But that was later, of course. After.
“He was driving in from Des Moines, coming to visit me at college for the weekend.”
Ashlyn nestled the ring back into the box and reached over, placing her hand on my knee. “Liz?”
“It’s okay.” I gripped my hands together in my lap, bracing myself for this next part. “He fell asleep behind the wheel and collided head on with a semi-truck. He was killed instantly.” Because of me. Because of love, I add in my head. Ashlyn would try and talk me out of that notion because that was what she was supposed to do. But I knew. Just like I knew in my heart I was falling for Cohen and I wasn’t supposed to. He was off limits for so many reasons, it should have been illegal.
I didn’t tell her about the six months after his death when I could barely function, or the two years after that I lived like a zombie, reliant on anti-depressants just to get through each day. My move to Chicago was my chance to start over. I became Liz—hardened, invincible party girl extraordinaire, only looking for a good time and an occasional fling.
There was no way I could have gone on living in Iowa after Paul died. Traces of him were all over the small town where I grew up. Having to pass by my parents’ country club where we’d met, restaurants we’d eaten at, or other familiar places on a daily basis would have been too much. I’d taken a semester off school after his death and then transferred to Chicago after that.
I loved living in Chicago now. The hustle and bustle, the pace of it all, the traffic jams and ethnic diversity ensured that I was rarely reminded of my small-town Iowa upbringing.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me, Liz?” Ashlyn’s concerned voice pulled me from my own thoughts.
“I don’t like talking about it—for obvious reasons.”
She nodded and patted my knee again. “You never judged me for being with Aiden.” She squinted her eyes. “Well, maybe just a little, but that’s only because you’re a good friend, and that was kind of freaking crazy of me. But my point is that you’ve also been there for me. You always had my back, and even if I didn’t want to hear what you had to say—you told me. Because that’s what friends do.”
This little speech was so unlike Ashlyn, I couldn’t help myself for leaning in towards her, studying her like a science experiment.
“You have feelings for Cohen,” she continued. “Real feelings. And I know you don’t want to, but you need to let yourself properly grieve Paul and move on, knowing that he’d want you to be happy. If he was as great as you say, he’d probably even like you ending up with a guy like Cohen.”
Realization slammed into my chest. She was right. How did I not see that before? It came at me with a rush of stunning clarity. Paul would hate what I’d been doing. Too much wine and too much attitude. One night stands. Nameless guys for the sake of forgetting. I cringed when I thought about my affair with Stu.
Crap. Ashlyn was right. Too bad it wasn’t going to be that simple.
“Go see him, sweetie. Talk to him, let him in.”
“There’s something else though.” I looked down, fidgeting nervously with the throw pillow on my lap.
I took the box from her hands and lifted the velvet lining from the bottom. I hadn’t opened this box in many years, but still my fingers knew the exact corner to lift to ease the fabric away. I freed the photograph nestled at the bottom of the box and handed it to Ashlyn.
She studied it with a crinkled brow before speaking. “This is an ultrasound photo.” Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, Liz.” She flung her arms around me, squeezing me tight, letting me weep softly into her hair.
“I was sixteen weeks along when I lost Paul, and then a week later, I lost the baby too.” I swallowed the lump in my throat, then took the picture from her and returned it to the box, safely tucking it underneath the velvet fabric. “He’d been hoping for a little girl—he wanted her to look exactly like me.” The memory brought a small smile to my lips. I couldn’t believe it’d been five years since I’d been pregnant. I could still remember the exact way I felt—terrified and then overjoyed all in the blink of an eye. I remembered Paul’s eyes turning misty when I told him the news, and him crushing me to his body in a hug before quickly pulling away to be sure he didn’t squeeze me too tight and hurt the baby. I recalled the achy soreness in my breasts, the nausea that lasted all day, and my cravings for high protein foods like steak that I’d never been fond of before.
“Liz?” Ashlyn interrupted my private stroll down memory lane. I’d been swept away again, but I knew I needed to finish the story.
“I had to undergo a procedure…and they discovered…” I stopped myself and took a deep breath, my voice growing shaky. “My body couldn’t handle the shock of losing Paul. So not only did I lose him, and then the baby, but I lost my ability to carry another baby, too.”
“Oh honey.” She stroked my hair back from my face lovingly.
“That’s why I didn’t waste my time on nice guys who would want more. I don’t have that in me to give to someone again—figuratively and literally.”
“Shh,” she shushed me, brushing her fingers through my hair.
“Cohen will want a family someday. And a wife with a functioning uterus.” I bit my lip. “I thought going for the younger guys—the undergrads—was safe. They’re not usually thinking ahead about that kind of stuff. But leave it to me to attract the world’s most perfect male and have him turn out to be all responsible and focused on his future Mrs. Right.” I rolled my eyes, trying to lighten the situation.
Ashlyn remained quiet, her expression thoughtful.
I carried the box back to my bedroom and instead of hiding it in my closet, where I usually kept it, I set it on my night table. I patted the top of it before going back to Ashlyn. I was glad I had told her, even if it had been hard to talk through. I grabbed some tissues and returned to the living room.
Ashlyn was still on the sofa, her legs tucked underneath her, and her face serious. “I know you feel something for him. And Cohen has surprised us both at every turn. Maybe he’ll surprise you again. I know that he feels strongly for you. Give him a chance, Liz.”