“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.
“Is there someone else?” I don’t know what I expected when I asked. Maybe that she’d deny it immediately. She was silent for too long on the other end. I could feel her deliberating. “Shit, Zoe,” I whispered, my voice breaking due to the overnight crying bender.
“I’m sorry, Graham. But I don’t want to talk about this with you anymore. I can’t help how I feel… or don’t feel. I never meant to hurt you, but you and me are over now. You’re gonna have to accept it.”
I didn’t talk to her for a couple of weeks after that, though I saw her around at school. While our breakup was out-of-left-field and excruciating for me, it was liberating but awkward for her. I only knew the awkward part because her friends Mia and Taylor told me that the reason she changed her routes between classes and started going off campus for lunch every day was because watching me mope was such a downer.
“I’m not moping. I mean sure, I’m kind of depressed—I wasn’t expecting this. I can’t just become resigned to it overnight.”
Mia rolled her eyes. “It’s been like two weeks.”
Taylor shrugged one bony shoulder, screwing her mouth up in the no-big-deal smirk she was fond of making. “You really need to move past it already, Graham. Zoe has.”
I stared at them, bewildered. “She did the breaking up. She was probably moving past it when she did it. I haven’t had time to acclimate to being so expendable. I can’t just snap out of it like the past year meant nothing.”
Even though that’s exactly what Zoe had done.
“Graham and his I’m-a-genius vocab,” Mia mumbled, just loud enough for me to hear as they walked away.
“Seriously,” Taylor agreed.
When Emma kissed me last night, right before I bolted from her hotel room, I recognized a resurgence of the yearning I’d felt for her the whole time we were in Austin. I thought I’d conquered it, because she wasn’t possible—for so many reasons.
For one, she’s young—eighteen now, seventeen when I met her. She carries herself with a maturity that belies her age, though, and once I knew her better, I knew why that was. With a deceased mother and an emotionally absent father, she’d been parenting herself for years. But I couldn’t forget that behind that mask of maturity was a girl who’d fallen for Reid Alexander, king of the Hollywood douchebags. I had pushed her into the friend box in my head and held her there forcibly. I couldn’t fall for a girl who’d fall for Reid—reason number two.
Reason number three—she lives on the opposite coast, though my subconscious mind (okay, fine, my completely conscious mind) did everything imaginable to change that fact. Once we started talking about college and her desire to act on the stage instead of in front of a camera, it made sense to suggest universities and conservatories in New York. That’s what I told myself, while thoughts of her being that near, all the time, buzzed feverishly through my head.
Finally, reason number four—I don’t share Cara with anyone but family and a couple of very close friends. Her existence is unknown to the world at large, though that won’t be true for long. When Emma ran into us at the coffee shop yesterday and interacted with Cara, that part of my wall began to fall.
Our kiss last night all but detonated the rest of it.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say now, glancing at my watch before tossing bills onto the table and taking her hand. “What time is your flight?”
Her eyes don’t waver from mine as I pull her from the booth. “Noon.” Holding her hand as tightly as she’s holding mine, I lead her through the café to the exit, a riot of thoughts whirlpooling in my brain. Soon, she and her dad have to leave for the airport, where they’ll board a plane for Sacramento. Suddenly, the end of August is intolerably far away.
The first time I saw Emma was almost eight months ago. Leaving my hotel room to talk Brooke down from a freak-out over seeing Reid for the first time in years, I noticed Emma, slipping a key card into her hotel room door. Small and slim, surrounded by luggage, she glanced up as my gaze scanned over her, blinking her beautiful green eyes. I smiled, instantly curious who she was. I was on a Brooke-support mission, though, with no time to stop and chat with beautiful strangers.
“Hey,” I said, feeling like a dork. What kind of guy comes out of his hotel room wearing pajamas and says hey to some random girl in the hall right before entering another girl’s room?
Two nights later, we finally met after the first cast outing. I recognized her in the club, talking with MiShaun and dancing with some of our costars, but Brooke kept me close until it became clear that Reid intended to ignore her completely. On a smoking break outside, I spotted Emma waiting for a taxi back to the hotel, and on a whim, I asked to share her cab. Brooke was ticked that I just left her there, but I couldn’t be sorry.
I lay in my bed that night tasting the sound of her name on my tongue—Emma.
We began running in the mornings and we hung out alone a couple of times, talking, while I weighed her involvement with Reid. I was patient and cautious until the morning I sat next to her on a covered picnic table, soaking wet, waiting for the rain to lighten up so we could finish our run. As we sat there small-talking, another conversation was taking place under the surface.
Her ponytail dripped down her back, her thin t-shirt clinging like a second skin, and she smelled incredible. One loose strand of hair snaked across her cheek and clung to the corner of her lip, and I think I almost stopped breathing, staring at it. I reached to move it behind her ear, thinking don’t, don’t, don’t kiss her. Followed by kiss her, kiss her, you idiot.
I congratulated myself on following the former and ignoring the latter.
Until I walked out of Brooke’s room that night (another Reid-related panic attack) to see Emma leaving my door and sprinting to her room like she didn’t want me to see her. I had two choices: go to my room and beat my head on the wall, or knock on her door and try to mitigate the damages of her having witnessed me leaving Brooke’s room late at night.
I knew the best case scenario for keeping Emma at arm’s length was to let her assume Brooke and I were involved. She was already halfway there; all I had to do was nothing. Then the image of her upturned face that morning flashed across my mind’s eye, and my memory conjured the smell of the rain on her skin and in her hair. I considered the easy rapport we’d established, and the comfort I felt when she was near. In a fit of unprecedented impulsiveness, I was at her door inviting myself in, and before I left her room I’d held her and kissed her and fallen so hard that I was happy to be broken into bits.