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Authors: Molly Ringle

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BOOK: Relatively Honest
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I sighed. “What, do you want me to give you a chart? ‘Fifteen at the heavy-snogging level, twelve at above-the-waist petting, nine at below-the-waist…’”

“How about just the home runs?” she said, with a touch of coldness.

I met her eyes, feeling both guilty and annoyed, then returned to my study of the ice cream. “Four.” There. The truth, plain and clear.

“Four,” she repeated, as if she doubted it.

“Yes, four. And I’m not claiming they were all good ideas.”

“Never in love? Really?”

“Don’t think so. They say you know when you are.”

“Yeah. You do.” She was silent for a minute. “Well. We all do stuff we regret, when we’re kids.”

Wisely, I decided not to say I hadn’t much regretted any of it until tonight. “True,” was all I said.

“Ready to go?”

The rain had stopped, so we didn’t need to share the umbrella. On the way back we spoke of our classes and her sorority, but it seemed a curtain had fallen between us. I couldn’t get her to laugh with the freedom she used to, or look at me with the same sparkle as before. She knew more about me than ever, and was pulling away. This, need I add, was very dismaying.

In the stairwell we said goodnight, somewhat drearily, and separated. I returned to my room, where Clare and Sinter, dressed but looking more rumpled than usual, were sharing a clove cigarette. They waved at me. Sinter’s usually-pale cheeks now glowed a healthy pink.

Clare coughed and handed the cigarette back to Sinter. “Jesus. How can your lungs stand these things?”

“If you’re going to smoke, you might as well smoke one real cig that tastes good, rather than half a pack that tastes nasty, like yours,” he said.

She hit his arm, he caught her hand and pulled her close, and they kissed for at least half a minute. In a stab of envy, which I was quite unaccustomed to feeling, I turned away.

Chapter 7: The Walk of Shame

I was
determined not to let it get to me. I would break down Julie’s prejudices. I had conquered resistance and skepticism before, and could do so again.

But, as with the previous weeks, we didn’t get to see one another much. University, it seemed, kept you terribly busy. I saw far more of Clare, as she and Sinter had become inseparable. Some nights she slept in his bed with him, and once or twice, he slept down in the girls’ room. How’s that for unfair? Sinter got to spend the night in a room with Julie when I didn’t. I managed to avoid asking him what she wore to bed.

One rainy day in October, I strolled down to the women’s floor, hoping I might find her in, thinking I could draw her into a soulful conversation about British cathedrals. Their door was open; the light shone onto the brown hallway carpet. Music pounded from another room, but I could easily hear the two women’s voices over it.

“I think Sinter’s cute,” Julie said.

“He totally is,” Clare said. “It’s just you can’t always see it, the way he hides all his good features behind the eye makeup and crap.”

I slowed down, smiling, thinking I might have a tidbit to tell Sinter if I eavesdropped for a moment.

“Plus, it isn’t fair for him that his roommate happens to look like a male model,” Julie said.

I stopped a few feet from their door, and lifted my eyebrows at the unexpected compliment.

“No kidding.” Clare snorted. “Jesus. Mr. Womanizer.”

“That email from his ex.” Julie started giggling.

My smile wilted.

“God, that was priceless. No surprise, though. We could have guessed it from how he acts.”

“He’s used to getting anything he wants from girls,” said Julie. “Which means he never really cares about any of them.”

Total death of my smile.

“Exactly,” said Clare. “It’s made him cocky. Takes it wherever he can. Even turned his dog getting killed into an excuse to feel up some chick.”

“‘My first extended snogging session,’” Julie said, in an impression of my accent that might have been cute any other time.

Both girls laughed. I stared at the carpet.

“He totally wants you, you know,” added Clare.

“I get the feeling he wants a lot of girls.” Julie sounded her usual cheerful self. “And he’ll probably get most of them, so I’m sure he won’t mind if I opt out.”

“Good choice. Think of the diseases.”

Julie laughed. “Oh, that’s just mean.”

That’s just slander!
I thought, wanting to burst into their room and say so. Instead I wheeled round and went back to the stairwell. I was trembling at the injustice. I couldn’t even tell Sinter, because he was Clare’s boyfriend. It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to side with me, against her.

But I knew very well it wasn’t Clare’s harsh words that bothered me most. Clare was harsh with everyone, Sinter included. What stung was Julie – wonderful Julie – talking about me, psychoanalyzing me, dismissing me, all behind my back.

Sinter was away at class, so I had the room to myself. I locked the door and flopped onto my bed, scowling at the ceiling.
What does it matter?
She has a boyfriend. For whatever reason she plans to “opt out” with me. She’s right, you know: I can get anyone. I ought to look into that option. Remember, there are two thousand other available women on this campus.

Yeah. Whatever.
My eyes closed. Tired and dizzy, I thought about our “worst things.” My dog had died. Clare had found her friend dead. Innocent Sinter had been shut out by his parents. Julie had lost her mother early in life. In addition, I knew that my father had lost
his
father when he was just my age. My mother had lost her sister, back when I was too young to remember; and her dad, my Granddad, had died just two years ago. While my mother was pregnant, my dad got fired, and for a couple of months they weren’t sure how they would support a baby. In short, there were a million bad things that could happen, and did happen, to people. I knew it. But it didn’t help.

I moved over to my desk chair and turned my computer on. In an email window, without entering an address or a subject line, I started pounding keys at a rate that would have made my secondary-school touch-typing teacher proud.

Julie,

You think I can’t care about a girl. You think sex is all fun to me and never means anything. You think the worst thing that’s ever happened to me is my dog dying. Well, let me tell you the real worst thing.

I was fourteen. I was in Harrogate, in Yorkshire, for the summer. My parents were setting up a new hotel there, so I lived there too and had a job in the dining room. On a day off, I was at the swimming pool, and met two American sisters, aged fourteen and sixteen. Their parents were out sightseeing. We spent hours talking, and I was completely in love by the end of it. (Not that it was real love, like you asked me about, but I thought it was at the time.) I planned I would marry one of them, probably the younger girl.

They invited me up to their room. The older sister told me neither of them had kissed a British bloke before. Naturally I fixed that for them. Kissing was all I’d ever done with anyone by that point in my life. I kissed each of them a few times; they took turns. Then they whispered together and came back giggling, and the older one said her younger sister had never touched a guy. You know, TOUCHED a guy.

So I fixed that for them too.

We made sure the door was locked. They put a towel on the bed – we were still wet from the pool – and had me lie down. They knelt over me and took down my trunks. I didn’t touch the girls, didn’t dare. Getting touched was good enough, rather too good. I warned them things could get messy if they kept on. The older one said it was all right, her sister needed to learn sometime.

So they kept on. Couldn’t have taken more than five minutes.

They let me clean off, then said they had to meet their parents for dinner, and I’d better go. I wrote down my address for them. They said they’d write to me. Didn’t give me their address in return. I stepped out into the corridor, and the older girl handed me a five-pound note.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“You work here,” she said. “It’s polite to tip someone who’s done a good job.” Then she giggled and shut the door.

I needn’t tell you I never heard from them again.

I felt sick that evening; tried to eat supper, threw it up. Told my parents I had swallowed too much pool water. Stayed in a panic for days, thinking somehow my parents would find out and be horrified with me, but of course they never did. It was like it never happened, except for the five-pound note.

To this day I can’t decide who was more to blame, me or those girls. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the mark it left on me. Is that why I keep seeking out sexual situations where I’m in control? Is that why I haven’t let myself fall in love? Does it explain my weakness for American girls? Maybe, or maybe not. But I’ve never told it to anyone before, and for some reason I wanted to tell you.

Maybe it’s that you’re American and you remind my messed-up brain of those girls; maybe it’s that I’m far away from home and can never really go back; maybe it’s that I’m worried about my mother; or maybe I’m finally old enough to get serious about someone. All I know is, even though you’ve knifed me in the back today, I still want you. You’ve disturbed me almost as much as those girls did, and all you’ve ever done is shake my hand.

I stopped typing.

I read the letter over once, shuddered, and erased everything, closing the window, making absolutely sure it was gone. No one would read that. No one, ever. I leaned over the keyboard and cradled my head in my hands.

Of course
my moodiness soon gave way to a wish for vengeance and victory, the same as it had every time in my life so far. I wanted to win Julie over with charm; or, failing that, exact revenge. I just hadn’t worked out how yet.

An opportunity soon presented itself. On a Friday, a week later, two girls named Liz and Gretchen held a movie night in their room. They lived across the hall from Julie and Clare, and had a television and DVD player. Julie, Clare, Sinter, and I were all invited.

I placed myself next to Julie, squashed on the floor against one of the beds, and greeted her happily as if I knew nothing about her nasty comments to Clare. She answered pleasantly enough, but with a touch of coolness, as if wearing a shield against me and my dangerous wiles. Meanwhile, Liz cuddled up on my other side. Liz was an attractive girl, with curly brown hair and (how do I put this politely?) huge breasts. But just as Gretchen switched off the light and started the movie, Julie squirmed and complained the bed was digging into her back, and leaped up to wedge herself into a corner next to Clare. As Liz had linked her arm in mine and was asking me about London, I could hardly jump up and follow Julie, so I stayed.

In fact, as the film progressed and Liz’s fingers began massaging mine, lacing in and out on top of my thigh, and her head came to rest on my shoulder, I decided I might as well sit back and enjoy the adoration. I wasn’t personally doing anything – no one could blame
me
this time – and what was I supposed to do, anyway? Shove her away and tell her to keep her hands to herself?

I couldn’t see Julie without turning around, so I don’t know how much she noticed, or whether she cared. I only heard her laugh and comment on the film a few times, along with the others.

After the movie, Liz got up, tugging my hand. “It’s so hot in here! Come outside with me.”

I let myself be pulled to the door, and shrugged at Sinter, who watched me with a curious smile. Julie, engaged in conversation with Gretchen, did not appear to notice.

“I think it’s raining,” I told Liz as we ran down the stairs.

“I know. I love the cool air.” We emerged into the rain, and she pulled me immediately under the shelter of a breezeway. “Plus,” she said, catching my other hand, “I wanted to get myself into a dark alley with you.”

“Hmm, could be dangerous.”

“I’m not scared.” She stepped up and kissed me. I kissed her back, and instantly found myself thinking,
How many is that now, Revelstoke? Fifty-one?

And he never really cares about any of them.

I drew away. “Suppose we should go back up.”

“Dan,” she pleaded, meek now. “Can I hang out with you tonight? It doesn’t have to be any serious thing.”

“I…I don’t know if Sinter expects to have the room to himself, so um…”

“We can wait until they leave, then go back to my room. Gretchen won’t mind. I…” She lowered her face. “My boyfriend back home broke up with me, and I miss my friends, and…I know I’m pathetic, but I just want some company. For tonight. Someone I can snuggle up to.”

Oh, Lord. What kind of bastard would I be if I said no to that? “All right,” I said, winning a new smile from her. “I’ll be a warm body for you.”

So it came about that I crashed in Liz’s room, in her bed, wearing my shirt and jeans and socks. Gretchen, six feet away from us, seemed not to care in the slightest, and fell asleep in minutes. Liz kissed me a few more times, but I stopped her when she tried to climb on top of me.

“I can’t. We shouldn’t,” I whispered. “I’d be taking advantage. I really, really think we’d regret it.” She sulked, but agreed, and soon was asleep with her arm over my chest.

Almost never had I said such a thing to a girl I actually found attractive. And with my four sexual partners I had never had occasion to spend the night. This was therefore a first in more ways than one, although a lackluster first.

I didn’t sleep well, with Liz’s knees and arms and breasts prodding me in one place and another. At eight o’clock on Saturday morning I slipped out of bed, whispering to her that I had to be going – lots to do, you know. I crept out of her room.

No one would be surprised, I’m sure, to learn that at that exact moment, Julie French came out of her room opposite. We halted and looked at each other. She wore her overcoat, and had her knapsack on her shoulder, and looked freshly washed. I, in comparison, probably looked like a stray dog.

“Morning,” she said, with a quirk of a smile.

“Hi.” I hooked a thumb back toward Liz’s door. “This, er, isn’t what you think.”

Her eyes took in my rumpled shirt, my socks, and the shoes I held in one hand. “I’m sure you were just serving them breakfast. In yesterday’s clothes.”

“Honest, Liz just asked me to stay because…well, it doesn’t matter, but nothing happened. Really.”

“Of course.” She tucked her room keys into her pocket. “I have to meet a study group at the library, and I’m already late…”

I followed her down the corridor. “Come on. Don’t be cold. I swear, she kissed me, but that was all.”

“None of my business.” She lifted a hand to block out my speech.

I got ahead and opened the stairwell door for her. “But we’re
friends
,” I challenged. The word reverberated between the concrete walls.

She was already descending the stairs. She sent me a patient smile. “Then I wish you a very nice Saturday, Daniel.” She wiggled her fingers goodbye, and was gone.

“Because there’s
really no way I can explain it to her without
still
sounding like scum,” I complained to Sinter over lunch in the dining hall, later that day.

“The ‘sympathy shack-up’ doesn’t score many points,” he agreed.

“I don’t even think she was jealous, so it was a complete waste.”

Sinter sprinkled salt onto his mashed potatoes. “Why do you care? She’s still with Patrick.”

It was a touchy point, and required some resentful silence while I chewed on my toast. “Because I need to be adored,” I said, sardonically. “Didn’t you read Miriam’s email?”

He leveled a wise look at me. “That’s why you like Julie. She doesn’t fall for your tricks like all those others.”

“Shut up. I know.”

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