“Here,” I say to Claire as I hand her the diet coke she requested.
“Thanks,” she says, taking it from my hand and setting it on the small white table next to her. Claire is lounging back on my balcony, reading a book while I study for the goddamn bar exam. Again.
To be honest, I don’t even know how she got here. We seem to be falling into a pattern of showing up. We meet at the coffee shop in the morning without even discussing it or scheduling it. We just do it and then without asking, we follow the other one home or wherever they’re going, and hang out or go to work together.
Never in my life have I ever been like that with anyone.
It doesn’t even feel like we’re imposing on the other. It’s just sort of the way things have developed. I ride with her to work or she rides with me, even though we both have cars. On weekends, we do things like go to street fairs and paint the walls of my apartment and go out to eat, and I listen to Claire play and make music a lot. She tries to quiz me on the bar exam, but doesn’t really do the best job with that one.
It’s like we’re in a relationship without being in a relationship.
It’s actually what I picture marriage being like when you’re old and have been together for fifty plus years. We don’t have sex. We don’t kiss on the lips.
We do, however touch each other in completely platonic safe places. And that’s another thing—we’re always touching each other. When we’re out, my arm is usually over her shoulder. If we’re watching TV on one of our respective sofas, she’s snuggled into my side.
All of this is something I’ve never experienced with a friend before. Not that I’ve had that many female friends over the years. Yet, I’m unbelievably happy.
It’s an odd sensation.
But right now, with Claire here and the warm fragrant wind on our faces and the sounds of the city below us, it’s the one word that seems to be repeating through my head at an annoyingly peppy rate.
Claire wanted to paint my apartment, so she led me to a hardware store. She wanted to hit up an outdoor street fair, so we did. She wanted to eat weird Tibetan food, so I tried it. I’m starting to get the impression that if she asked me to go sky diving right now, I’d acquiesce with little resistance. Can someone become pussy whipped when they’re not actually getting any pussy?
This girl . . . wow, I didn’t even see it coming.
I slide myself down next to her. We’re lounging on the double chaise on my balcony, even though there are other chairs and single chaises that we could very easily sit on. But we’re not. We silently sat on this one together.
Claire takes a sip of her soda, setting it back down on the table and bringing her knees up so that her Kindle is resting against the exposed skin of her thighs above her shorts. Her very short shorts. She has one arm propped behind her head, her hot-pink framed sun glasses perched perfectly on her nose.
“Why are you staring at me?” she asks without taking her eyes away from her e-reader.
“Just wondering what you’re reading,” I say as I take a sip of my regular Coke. I really only keep Diet Coke here for her. And wine. And large Swedish Fish, which she chews on constantly. And organic cheddar crisps that are really an expensive version of Cheez-It crackers.
“Nothing you’d like,” she says, which of course piques my interest, making me lean over to try and catch a few words on the screen.
“Why won’t you tell me?” I ask, trying to snatch the e-reader off her lap, but she pulls it away, angling it so I can’t see it.
“Why do you care?” she counters, nudging me with her elbow, trying to push me away.
I laugh, nudging her back. “I’m just curious. Don’t you want to know what I’m reading?”
“I’m gonna be real honest with you,” she says, pulling down the bridge of her glasses so she can look at me. “No. I don’t.”
“It’s smut, isn’t it? You’re reading porn.” I try to grab her Kindle again, but she holds it out so I’d have to practically climb on top of her to get it.
“Fuck off,” she laughs, pushing me away with her free hand. “Mind your own damn business. Last I checked, you have a big important exam to study for.”
“Why won’t you tell me?” I say, ignoring her jab. “What are you hiding?” I get up on my knees, angling my body over hers and grab the arm that’s holding the e-reader.
“Hey,” she yells, but she’s laughing now, trying to push me off and struggling to maintain her control of the Kindle. “It’s nothing. It’s just a stupid book.”
“Bullshit,” I argue, pulling her arm to me and snatching the book because Claire seems to realize that it’s a losing battle.
She lets out a huff, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms over her chest. She’s not embarrassed, but I don’t think she wanted me to read this either. My eyes scan the text for a moment, widening as they go.
“It is porn,” I laugh, dropping back down into my seat. Claire reaches out, trying to swipe her device from my hands but I push her back by the forehead. “No way, cupcake. I’m into this now.”
“You’re a dork.”
“And you’re a secret porn reader.”
“That was a really pathetic come back. It’s not porn. Well, I guess it sort of is. I mean, it’s erotica. But it has a story to it and not like what you’d see in a real porn. It’s not like the cable guy is coming over and the girl opens the door in lingerie before she fucks him.”
“Oh,” I say glancing in her direction. “You’ve seen that one too.”
Another eye roll.
“‘His fingers traced small circles up her thighs until he reached her sex,’” I read and then look back over at Claire. “Her sex? Really? Why don’t they call it her pussy?”
“I know, right?” she laughs. “I never got that and you read it all the time in these sorts of books. They have all sorts of vagina euphemisms. Sometimes you’ll see it referred to her as cunt or snatch and yes, pussy is used, but in this book, it’s called her sex, even though the sex scenes are super graphic.”
“Wow,” I say with a big smile that I can’t contain. “I can’t tell if that’s hot or not.”
She nods, leaning back and looking up at the blue sky. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if they used words like penis fly trap, or cave of wonders, or pink taco?”
“Pink taco?” I snort. “That’s fucking nasty. But then again, I really love to eat both, so maybe it just makes sense,” I muse, sitting back to read more of this crap. “What do they call a penis? I’m assuming the words cock or dick aren’t used?”
She shakes her head. “No. At one point she used member, and another time it was his arousal.”
“So, explain to me why you’re reading this one if you don’t like the cheese factor of it.”
She shrugs, reaching over and taking her Kindle from me. “It’s trash and trash can sometimes be fun to read.”
“Do you always read trash?”
“I read all sorts of books, but to be honest, this is the first book I’ve read in a while. I’ve been writing a lot more music lately than I’ve been reading.”
I smile at that, pulling her into my side almost absentmindedly. It’s become a reflex. Something I do without thinking too much, but enjoy far more than I should. “Will you play something for me that you wrote?”
“Next time I’m in front of my keyboard.”
I kiss the side of her head, before picking up my own e-reader so I can get back to my studying. “Why don’t you have a real piano?”
Claire turns her head to me, her expression seems to be challenging my basic sanity.
“You do realize I have like zero room in my apartment, right? And my music room is already overcrowded with my other instruments. I’d love a piano.” She shrugs. “Maybe if I ever move, I’ll get a real one. For now, I’m stuck with the keyboard. But it’s fine. It does the job.”
“Huh,” is all I can think to say, staring down sightlessly at my book.
“What are we doing tonight?” she asks, staring back at her own book.
“To be honest, I’m really not up for going out. I think I’ll probably just order something in and either study or watch a movie or something.”
She nods. “I’m up for that if you’re up for some company.”
I laugh, nudging her side again. “When am I ever not up for your company?” It’s a rhetorical question and clearly, I said it in an off the cuff way, but it still makes me cringe, because that question is suggestive despite its simplicity.
“Good. But if we’re getting pizza, can we get it from that really snobby gourmet place that has those specialty pies? And I don’t really want to watch anything too serious. Maybe an action flick or a comedy.”
“Jesus, you’re pretty fucking demanding considering you’re the invited guest. I thought the benefit of friendship was that the woman didn’t get to dictate everything. Otherwise, what’s the point?” I ask, looking down on her. “It’s not like I’m getting sex out of the deal.” I can’t help but raise an eyebrow.
“No,” she says, looking up at me with a small grin on her ruby-tinted lips, her blue eyes covered by her shades. “I guess that’s true. How’s this then? I’ll let you pick the actual movie.”
“Wow,” I deadpan. “That’s the most generous thing anyone has ever offered me. I would have personally gone for the sex, but choosing the movie might just be better.”
“See.” She nods her head. “They don’t make people more giving than I am. You really are lucky to have me as your friend.”
“True.” I lean back in the chaise, enjoying the way I sink into the cushion. I take a sip of my soda and Claire goes back to her reading.
“How often do you masturbate?” she asks and that sip of soda that I was in the process of swallowing immediately comes out my mouth and nose in a gush of fizzy spray. “Wow.” She smirks, trying to hide her laugher. “I’ve never actually seen anyone spray soda out of their nose like that. I didn’t realize it was possible.”
“Thanks,” I mutter, wiping my face and trying not to grimace from the persistent burn inside my nostrils.
“That as unpleasant as it looked?”
“Yup. So, try not to say something like that the next time I take a drink.” I raise my hand, stopping my thought. “On second thought, any time I drink or eat something, try not to speak. I’m afraid one day I’ll actually choke and you don’t look like the type to know CPR.”
“Au contraire, mon frère, I am excellent at mouth to mouth.”
“That was a softball.”
“It was, but you set it up nicely. So, answer my question.”
“How often do I masturbate?” I look over at her, my eyebrows at my hairline.
“Yeah, I’m curious,” she taps on the edge of her e-reader, “because in this book, the guys are always taking cold showers to knock their hard-ons down. I don’t get it. If you’re alone and in the bathroom, why not just whack one off? Saves time and prevents frostbite.”
“Yeah, I have no real answer for that.”
“Oh, come on, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
“Claire, knowing you, I assume you get off at least once a day.”
She winks at me. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” I would, but that’s really not the point.
And in fact, now all I can see is an imagine of Claire making herself come. “Stop visualizing or I’ll do it back.”
I grin at her. “That a threat or a promise?”
“I don’t typically make threats I’m not willing to back up. It misleads people.”
“What exactly are we talking about now?”
Claire shrugs, leaning back a little against the cushion, parting her thighs absentmindedly. Holy fuck that’s hot. “Honestly, I don’t know. I sort of got lost in the mental image thing. But really, I want to know why men take cold showers instead of jerking off in books.”
“I don’t know, Claire. I’ve never actually taken a cold shower to get rid of an erection. Usually I just jerk off in the shower if I’m that hard up.”
Claire smiles big. “Thank you. That’s all I wanted to know.”
Now I can’t concentrate. How am I supposed to go back to reading business law after that conversation? It’s impossible. I need to change the subject because all I can think about is Claire naked, spread out with her hand between her legs. Or even better, my hand between her legs. And now I’m getting hard, which is just ironic in a bad porn movie sort of way.
So, I say the first thing that comes to mind other than the obvious. “I heard Kate say that it’s your birthday next week.”
Claire sighs, straightening her legs and letting her book lay flat against them. “Are you fishing here, Kyle? Did Mama Duck put you up to this?”
“She might have,” I admit.
Claire lets out another sigh. “I’m not all that into my birthday and Miss Kate has a real hard time accepting that.”
“Why aren’t you into your birthday?”
Claire is silent for a moment, just staring out at my view. “I’m just not,” she finally says. “So, when you report back, tell her that you tried and I wasn’t receptive. I don’t want a party. I’m not being one of those girls who says one thing, but really wants the opposite. I’m not.”
“Kate loves you. She wants to make you happy and to her, that’s making a big deal.”
“I know and I love her back for it. I really do. If I was a good little egg, I’d just smile through it. And with some things I do. But not this. No parties. No cake. No singing or presents.”
“Can I get you something?” I ask, already having an idea of what I want it to be.
The corner of her mouth twitches up. “You really are the perfect guy,” her head tilts in my direction, “aren’t you, Kyle Grant? You must have women dropping their panties for you constantly.” She smiles bigger. “I don’t need anything.” Claire reaches out, her fingers gliding across my cheek until her hand cups it. “You already give me so much more than you realize.”
She turns away from me, picking up her smut and bringing her knees back up. She’s dismissing me. Changing the subject without having to say another word.
I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand the contradiction that is Claire Sullivan.
But she’s crazy if she thinks I’m not getting her a present.
The thing I want to get her might just be a bit over the top. Might go way beyond something a friend would give. But it’s something that’s been on my mind since I first went to her apartment, and after our conversation today, I really can’t stop the wheels from spinning. That, and I cannot think of someone I want to spend my bonus money on more than her.
Claire might not want the attention that comes with a birthday party. I won’t even pretend to understand the reason behind it. She says I’ve given her more than I realize. She has to know it’s the same for me. That she has become the most important thing in my life.
I just want to make her happy because it’s exactly what she deserves.
Hopefully, that’s what my present will do.