Grant sits on his hands in an immense chair that maybe qualifies as a love seat while Taylor slices frozen cookie dough in the kitchen.
Hers (her parents') is an immaculate chef's kitchen, with a big chopping block island in the middle at which she stands, back turned to him.
Taylor sighs. “You didn't have to come here.”
He's not sure if she's actually upset or if she's pretending for attention. He's also not sure why the latter possibility upsets him so much. (There are lots of things he doesn't know.) “C'mon. You can't send a text like that and expect me to not respond.” The text in question—a cryptic u dont really like me, do u—was just desperate enough to be concerning and just vague enough to be confusing. Grant feels as though his head might explode. Maybe he's not cut out for relationships.
“I didn't mean that. I mean you could have just texted back. You didn't have to come over. Now it's awkward.”
“It's not awkward,” Grant protests. “I live five minutes away. It's only awkward because you're making it awkward.”
“When you say things like that, it's basically proof you don't like me.”
“Can you turn around?” Taylor does, and though her face is dark at least she isn't crying. “Why'd you send that text? Are you implying that you want to break up?”
Apparently those are the magic words. “No!” she says quickly. “I don't wanna break up.”
“Well now that we've gotten that out of the way...”
She shrugs. “It's just how I felt at the time so I sent it to you, to express myself.”
Grant becomes suspicious. She knows that he, a musician, won't argue with self-expression. She may be twisting his brain into knots only to smooth it back out with a hand job later. Not that he's opposed. He basically signed up for it. He came over.
It's Saturday and Taylor is in pajamas—slim pink ones, with striped pants. He wonders if girls always go to sleep looking put together, or if they have a secret drawer with old crap they wear around the house alone, clothes that more closely resemble his extensive collection of threadbare grey boxers. Nipples poke through her tank top, framed by that crazy red hair. Without his consent, his mind takes a mental snapshot, a move he'll kick himself for later. This image of Taylor walking toward him, barefaced and barefoot, will resurface during lonely nights in college, even and especially when conventionally attractive co-eds sleep next to him on his narrow dorm room mattress.
“I'm sorry,” Taylor says, straddling him. “Sometimes I just need more from you.”
“Just tell me what you need.”
“I need you to tell me that you really like me.”
“I more than like you. I love you.” It's not the first time he's said it but it's the first time he's said it in person. It tumbles from his mouth like a sigh. He regrets it until Taylor's eyes light up.
“I love you too, I really do!” Then they're kissing and, because her parents are somewhere downstairs in this massive house watching a movie, she's pulling him upstairs. They take their clothes off all at once and dive under her polka-dotted duvet for warmth. Skinny shaved legs rub against skinny hairy ones. Grant's erection seems more pronounced under the covers, where it stands with a strength all its own. As it turns out, this strong erection will be the one constant in a tumultuous relationship marked by school years apart and vacations together, with feelings for each other mingling with feelings about childhood and their families and Pearville as a place and an idea. She in the mountains of Vermont, he in Chicago, they'll chat nearly every night, and if one doesn't hear from the other all day, a concerned email will be sent. Late night phone calls will grow more heart-wrenching. She'll cup her hand over her phone so her roommate won't hear. He'll gaze at the shadows street lamps cast against his apartment wall, interrupted by the occasional ambulance. They'll make all sorts of promises to each other and talk about all the places they might live someday and one winter break, while visiting Middlebury, Grant will be introduced to a skinny engineering major—who will seem too mild-mannered to be considered sexual much less a threat—only to have Taylor, two months later, admit that they “hooked up last night.” We agreed that we can have sex with other people, he'll reply. Oh I know, she'll say. But this time felt different. That's why I'm telling you.
Grant will spend the semester before college graduation distracting himself, playing three gigs a week, two alone and one with a drummer friend, subjecting unsuspecting patrons of bars and coffee shops to his raw, unedited feelings. At school he'll show a newfound focus and impress his professors, one of whom will point out that Grant would make a good candidate for grad school. Grateful for a goal, he'll apply and be accepted, then apply for the Ph.D program and will be accepted into that, too. In moments of weakness, he'll log into a friend's account and peek at Taylor online. He'll see that she moved to Brooklyn with the engineer and renovated an old apartment and took a job in advertising.
Taylor gives him more than a hand job. Under the duvet, she arches her back and flicks her tongue briskly from the base to the tip of his penis before slipping it into her mouth. He pats her hair in gratitude because it feels electrifying, then is struck with guilt because she's making him feel good and he's not doing anything for her, so he fumbles his hand around her vagina as if her labia are guitar strings. Her mouth abandons his penis in record time. “Um. Try this instead.” Dismounting and huddling next to him on the bed, she guides his fingers toward what the internet calls the clitoris. “Do this.” She makes a come hither motion with her finger, and he obeys. Her eyes magically widen.
Grant will be in a Croatian hotel room when he sees Taylor's wedding photos online, one of those carefully curated, expensive bohemian-style weddings, the sort designed to display a couple's taste and newly conjoined personal brand. He'll have just conducted the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra in his thesis composition, two years after it was composed. He'll flip through the photos mechanically, marveling at how different she looks from how he remembers her, and will stop at the last photo of Taylor before her wedding makeup is applied: smiling mischievously into the camera, freckles barely visible, holding all her hair atop her head with one hand. He will stare at this image for at least ten minutes, unable to look away. Then he'll take a deep breath and close his computer.