“I’m getting too old,” she sniffles.
“Oh, stop it,” I say. Jenna is five years younger than me. I don’t get bought drinks either, although I was never really the type of girl that men hit on in bars.
“So,” she says, “how is Luke Thayer in bed?”
“Jenna!” I roll my eyes. “Come on…”
“Well, I don’t mean ‘in bed,’” she corrects herself, grinning. “Because obviously it happens in his office. But you know what I mean.”
“Nothing happens,” I insist. “And nothing’s going to happen. Luke just wants my help with the company.”
“Look, you don’t need to be embarrassed,” Jenna says. “I mean, I know he’s in the wheelchair, but he’s still hot. Really hot.”
“Jenna,” I groan.
“How does that work anyway?” she asks. “Do you guys do it in his chair? Can he get it up?”
“Jenna!” I cry. “We don’t do it anywhere! I repeat, I’m not having sex with him.” Unfortunately. “Come on—you know me.”
Jenna blinks. “Yeah, you’re right. Your way too square to sleep with the boss.” She runs a hand through her hair. Jenna has pretty blond hair and she’s slim but stacked—she’s much more Luke’s type than I am. Maybe I should’ve suggested her as a date for the art gallery—except that’s not what I want at all. “So what are you up to tomorrow? Do you want to catch a movie?”
“I can’t,” I mumble. “I’m going to this… art… thing.”
Jenna’s eyes widen. “Oh my God, are you going to the opening of the new exhibit at the Kimball Gallery?”
How the hell does she know about these things? “Um, yeah.”
“Who are you going with?” Her eyes narrow. “You’re not seeing anyone, right?”
She’s got me. My face is scarlet. “Luke.” I quickly add, “As friends.”
Jenna looks at me for a long time. She takes a sip of her beer. “Really, Ellie, what’s going on? I believe you’re not sleeping with him, but… well, your face is like a beet. I’ve never seen you like this before. Do you like him… you know, that way?”
No. I don’t. I don’t like Luke. He’s disagreeable, to put it mildly. He’s a rich, arrogant, cold, heartless businessman. The only reason I’m spending any time with him at all is for the good of the company. I certainly am not thinking about him at all in a romantic way. Even if I were looking for a boyfriend now, which I’m not, the last person I would pick would be Luke.
Right. I just have to keep telling myself that.
“You do!” Jenna cries, her eyes widening. “You do! You like him!”
“No, I don’t,” I mumble. “I just… think he’s sort of interesting. That’s all.”
“Well, he’s available, right?” she asks. “I mean, he’s got to be single.”
Everybody seems to make that assumption about Luke. And I suppose they’re right—he is single. “Yeah, he is,” I confirm. “But he’s not for me. He’s not my type at all.”
“Hey, it can’t be too bad having a rich boyfriend,” she points out. “I bet he’d buy you lots of expensive things.”
“Because I love expensive things, right?” I laugh. I’m the kind of girl who buys most of my furniture at Ikea. Expensive things make me uncomfortable.
Jenna brushes a strand of blond hair from her face, and I can’t help but think again that she’s so much more Luke’s type than I am. By the end of freshman year, I had a very good idea of the sort of girl he liked, and I wasn’t it. I was a fluke. A drunken mistake.
The first time I ever saw Luke with one of his Barbie dolls was in the middle of the first semester. Delia and I were celebrating that night. I had worked so hard studying the stories in expository writing to come up with the perfect arguments to shoot Luke down that I earned an easy A on my next paper.
Delia was celebrating too, because she brought up her tragic C on the first paper to a solid B+. We decided to rent a movie to watch in the common room of our dorm together. We lived in Weld, a dorm once inhabited by none other than John F. Kennedy himself. It seemed a bit of a travesty that a nerdy computer science girl and a nerdy pre-med should occupy the same space as such a great man, but as I said to Luke that day, at least we got in here fair and square. Even JFK probably got in at least partially because of nepotism.
It was a Thursday night, so the common room was empty. On Fridays and Saturdays, you could usually count on a bunch of drunk kids in there making out. I hadn’t been drunk ever before and I’d never made out with a boy, so I generally avoided the common room on weekends. But Thursday night was safe.
Delia had a bag of popcorn, but when we went to pop it in the microwave, we found a big “out of order” sign taped to the door. “Lame!” Delia whined.
“There’s a microwave in the Thayer common room,” I recalled. I knew because I’d cleaned the bathroom in there, but I didn’t mention that part.
“Great.” Delia shoved the popcorn bag into my hands. “I’ll see you in five.”
“Me?” I cried. “Why do I have to go?”
“Because I’m wearing my fuzzy slippers!” Delia said, pointing down at her feet, which were indeed cloaked in bunny slippers, while I had my sneakers on.
I didn’t want to admit the real reason for not wanting to go to Thayer, which was that I was scared of running into Luke. Well, not scared, exactly. But he wasn’t my favorite person these days and I knew seeing him would put a crimp in my night. Then again, if I slipped in and out of Thayer real fast, the chances of running into him were slim.
I trekked out of my dorm into the yard. I was only wearing a sweater and it was freaking cold, although at least I had my hair to keep me warm. New England was colder than Jersey by a noticeable margin. I heard on the radio that it was supposed to snow soon.
I was shivering violently by the time I reached Thayer House. Gripping my bag of popcorn in my raw, red fingers, I raced in the direction of the common room. I noticed a couple was making out on the couch, but I figured I wouldn’t disturb them if I slipped in there and popped some corn real quickly.
Except just my luck: half of the couple was Luke Thayer.
Luke had his fingers laced through the girl’s luscious blond hair, and I could hear her moan softly. It looked like a very nice kiss. For a moment, I imagined I was sitting there instead of the blond girl, and it was my lips that Luke’s were pressed against.
To my surprise, I felt myself getting tingly at the idea of it. And then I hated myself.
“Twelve Fingers!” Luke had broken away from the kiss and he was grinning up at me. “What are you doing here?”
I quickly averted my eyes. I marched right to the microwave and shoved the bag inside. Unfortunately, I had no idea how long it was supposed to go in for or how to work the controls on this stupid microwave.
Luke noticed me struggling. He climbed over the back of the couch and landed practically right at my feet. He was so nimble back then—effortless.
“Get away from me, Thayer House,” I snapped.
But Luke didn’t budge. “Can’t even work the microwave?” He clucked his tongue. “This is a disgrace. How’d you get in here anyway? Maybe they needed to fill their New Jersey quota.”
“Well, they definitely filled up their rich asshole quota,” I replied, cursing the stupid microwave and the fact that I couldn’t concentrate with Luke staring at me.
“What did you get on the SATs?” Luke asked me.
“I got a sixteen-hundred,” I replied honestly, lifting my chin to him. A perfect score. Beat that, Thayer House.
“Oh yeah? Me too.” He grinned at me, then pressed a button on the microwave, which whirred into action. “I guess working microwaves wasn’t on the test.”
I stared into the microwave, willing the popcorn to pop faster.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” he said. “Don’t you live in Weld?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. How did he know that? “Yeah, so?”
“So you can’t use our microwave,” Luke said. “That’s illegal. The popcorn is rightfully ours if you pop it here.”
“My keycard works here, so that means I am allowed,” I argued.
“Nuh-uh,” Luke said. He turned to his date, who was studying her nails. “Hey Maddie, we’ve got some popcorn here. Ellie here is donating it to us.”
Maddie lifted her vivid blue eyes. I still remember how beautiful she was. How being in the same room with her made me feel self-conscious. And embarrassed about my fantasy that Luke had been kissing me instead of her. As if.
“I don’t want it. I’m on a diet,” she said. Even though she probably weighed about as much as that bag of popcorn.
“Maddie doesn’t want the popcorn,” Luke reported back to me, like I wasn’t standing right there. “She’s on a diet, apparently. So I guess I’ll let you keep your popcorn.”
I gave him a dirty look. “Wow. How gracious of you, your majesty.”
He leaned in close to me and I could smell his aftershave. It occurred to me that I’d never been so close to a man who wore aftershave before. Or any man. My experience with boys before college was sorely lacking. I had never even kissed a boy before.
“You have to give me a handful,” he said.
I shook my head, clearing it of the intoxicating aroma of aftershave. “No way.”
“You’re not leaving this room if you don’t give me some popcorn,” he informed me.
The microwave dinged and we both jumped. I reached for the door, and Luke grabbed my wrist. I looked down at his fingers on my arm, then back up at his handsome face. I hated the fact that at that moment, I would have given him popcorn or pretty much anything else he wanted from me.
“Luke?” Maddie’s voice interrupted our little face-off. “What are you doing over there?”
She didn’t sound angry, only terribly bored. I wasn’t a threat to her. It was clear someone who looked like me wasn’t stealing Luke away from someone who looked like her.
Luke dropped my wrist. “You got off easy this time, Twelve Fingers,” he said to me. His brown eyes met mine. “But trust me—sooner or later, I’m going to get that popcorn.”
I hadn’t thought about that night in years, but when I think about it now, that same tingle goes through me again. As much as I hate to admit it, Luke was my first crush. But I would die before I’d admit it to him.
From The Boston Globe:
This week is the opening of the exclusive new art exhibit at the Kimball Gallery, featuring work by several up-and-coming artists. Tickets have gone for upwards of $500 each, and it’s rumored that the mayor of Boston will be attending. If you don’t already have a ticket, don’t bother trying to find one—they’ve been sold out for months.
That night, I have my typical work dream. I’m sitting at my computer and I’ve got some big assignment due. I’m typing in code but it takes me forever just to type one line. And then as I type, the code is disappearing from the screen. I look at the clock, which keeps ticking forward, my deadline moving closer. I’m freaking out. And now the phone is ringing…
The phone is ringing.
I rub my eyes and sit up in bed. My vision is still blurry without my contacts in but I can just barely read the number on the clock: 6:17 AM. Who the hell is waking me up this early on a Saturday morning?
“Hello,” I bark, ready to give whoever is calling a piece of my mind.
“Ellie?” It’s Luke. “Sorry, I didn’t interrupt anything, did I?”
“Just sleep,” I mumble, my anger subsiding slightly.
“You were sleeping?” He sounds amazed. “It’s after six, isn’t it?”
Luke leads a very different life than I do. “It’s all right,” I say. “Um, what is it?”
“Look,” he says. “There’s something I need to ask you but… you have to promise not to be insulted.”
I hate it when people say that. Because when someone says something like that, they’re clearly about to ask you something insulting. “What is it?”
“What are you planning to wear tonight?”
“Oh.” I scratch my head. “Uh, I hadn’t thought about it.”
“These art gallery things,” he says, “they’re ridiculously swanky. You need to dress up. And I was just wondering if you have anything kind of… you know, flashy yet elegant.”
I stumble out of bed in the direction of my closet. I push a few suit jackets out of the way and gaze upon my small supply of dresses. They’re mostly black. I don’t think any of them cost more than fifty bucks. I don’t know if any of them qualify as “flashy yet elegant.”
“Not really,” I admit.
“Okay, no problem,” he says. “I’ll buy you something. Are you free this afternoon?”
“Um, yeah,” I say. “But you don’t have to buy me anything. I’ll just run over to the Gap and pick something up.”
“The Gap?” He sounds horrified. “No, Ellie. You’re not buying a dress at the Gap. Let me pick you up and I’ll take you somewhere decent.”
Somewhere decent. I can’t even imagine what sort of place he has in mind. Good thing he’s offered to pay.
“I’ll pick you up at three,” he says. “Why don’t you bring your makeup and stuff and you can change at my place. Then we’ll go straight from there.”
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“I’m sharing a studio apartment in South Boston,” Luke says.
I frown at the phone. “You… what?”
“Just kidding, Ellie. I’ve got a house out in Lexington. You didn’t really think I’d live in a studio in South Boston, did you?”
Sometimes I kind of hate him.
When I climb into Luke’s car, I discover I’m incredibly underdressed compared to him. He’s wearing a suit and tie, looking just like he came from the office. Actually, maybe he did.
“Were you at work today?” I ask him.
“Of course,” he says, as if anything else on a Saturday afternoon would be ridiculous. He glances at the tin foil package I’m clutching. “What’s that?”
I feel my cheeks turning red. “It’s these pastries my neighbor helped me make for you.”
Luke raises his eyebrows. “You told your neighbor about me?”
Now my cheeks really are red. “Just… you know, that you were my boss.”
He works open the tin foil and pulls out one of the triangles. “Hey, hamantaschen!”
“Wow, you know what that is?”
“Of course.” He grins at me. “I grew up in Newton. These things are like donuts over there.” He takes a bite and his brown eyes widen. He puts his hand over his mouth and I can tell he’s trying not to spit it out.
“They’re a little hard,” I admit.
“Jesus Christ,” Luke gasps. “Did you also tell your neighbor that you hate me and you want to kill me?”
Hmph. They’re not that bad.
Luke hands me back my failed hamantaschen, then he pulls onto Harvard Street and I grab onto the edge of my seat as a guy practically leaps in front of the car and we come to a screeching halt. “Idiot,” he mumbles as he guns the engine again and we barely miss a woman with a baby carriage. This is why I hate driving in the Boston area. “Can you go slower?” I ask weakly.
“Slower?” Luke makes a face. “How long have you lived here? You gotta be aggressive, Ellie. Mow down the pedestrians. Kill or be killed. That’s my philosophy in driving, in business, and in life.”
Based on some of what people have said about him on the Internet, I believe it.
“Have you ever been in a car accident?” I ask him.
“Got rear-ended once in a traffic circle,” he says. “Total bullshit. People don’t know how to drive around here.”
Twenty minutes later, Luke’s Tesla pulls up in front of a smallish boutique. Even as I’m getting out of the car, I can see how expensive this place looks. I’m worried if I walk inside, the air will cost like ten bucks per breath. I wait as Luke grabs his wheelchair out of the back seat and pops the wheels back into place. As soon as he wheels up beside me, I lean over and whisper, “Are you sure about this place?”
It’s not just that the place looks too expensive—it’s too high class. I’m worried if I walk inside, they’ll ask me to leave now without making a scene.
“Calm down, Ellie,” he says. “I buy all my suits here. If they can make me look marginally good, you’re in very capable hands.”
Yeah, except Luke would look good in a clown suit. Or better yet, nothing at all.
Oh my God, where did that thought come from?
Sure enough, the second we get inside, a pretty Asian girl in her late twenties rushes over to us with a warm expression on her face. “Luke!” she says. “You need a tux for the art gallery tonight?”
Luke shakes his head. “No thanks, Irene, I’m good. Ellie here needs a dress.”
“Oh.” Irene looks me up and down with exactly the expression I’d expect to see from a person who worked in a swanky boutique like this. I shouldn’t let it get to me, but I feel my skin turning pink. On days like this, I’m glad I straighten my hair. Rosanna Rosannadanna would not go over well here.
“I told her you’d make sure she’ll look gorgeous for tonight,” Luke says.
Irene turns back to Luke, who is obviously a favorite client, and nods enthusiastically. “Of course! What did you have in mind?”
“I don’t know,” he says thoughtfully. “What would you like, Ellie?”
“Um,” I say. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever even been to an art gallery, much less been to an opening of some exhibit. I have no clue what I’m supposed to wear. “Whatever you think…”
Irene rolls her eyes a bit, but I don’t think Luke catches it. “Why don’t you browse a bit and I’ll see what I’ve got in the back.”
As Irene goes in the back, possibly to make fun of me while she pretends to search for clothes, I finger a simple white shirt that’s on display. I see the price tag hanging out and I gasp and jump back five feet.
“What’s wrong?” Luke asks, alarmed.
“That shirt is four-hundred dollars!”
“Oh.” He shrugs. “So?”
“So… it’s a white shirt! I could get that at Walmart for, like, fifteen bucks. The exact same thing.”
“Well, what are we doing here then?” Luke says. “Lemme get the car and we’ll go to Walmart. We can pick up some donut holes for the party on the way.”
I stick out my tongue at him and he laughs. I guess he’s right though. If you’re going to go someplace fancy, you have to dress fancy. But I have to wonder what sort of world we’re living in where there are people who would pay four-hundred dollars for a white shirt.
Irene emerges from the back carrying what appears to be a simple black dress, but Irene announces it is, in fact, “an Oscar de la Renta metallic floral lace gown.” It looks pretty unexciting, but Luke seems to like it, so I try to seem enthusiastic.
“It’s fab,” I say. Fab? Where did I come up with that word? Even Luke is looking at me with a bemused expression on his face and mouthing “fab?”
“You two can go in the back so she can try it on,” Irene suggests.
“Um,” Luke says. “Actually, we’re not… I mean, Ellie should just go herself…”
I can’t help but notice the twinge of a smile on Irene’s face on confirming that Luke and I aren’t a couple. Does she like him? And why does that thought fill me with the same burning, uncomfortable sensation in the back of my head that I felt when I looked at Michelle?
It’s not jealousy. I swear it’s not.
I go into the changing room, shrug off my jeans and sweater, and slide the dress onto my body. There’s a mirror in there, which is great for making sure I don’t look like an idiot before I go back outside.
Except I don’t look like an idiot at all. I look amazing. Like a movie star on the red carpet or something. I always made fun of people who shopped at expensive stores when you could get the same clothes for a quarter of the price. But I was wrong. This dress is gorgeous. It transforms me from a dowdy software engineer into… well, someone beautiful. I can’t stop staring at myself.
My elbow brushes against something and I realize it’s the price tag. I look at it and my heart sinks. This dress costs over five-thousand dollars. How is that even possible? I’ve never owned anything that cost that much, even a car. I can’t let Luke buy this dress for me. I can’t. It’s out of the question.
I emerge from the dressing room. Irene and Luke are chatting and he says something that Irene thinks is funny and she slugs him in the shoulder playfully. I have to admit, I’m still wearing the dress. I can’t seem to take it off. I figure, just a few minutes longer and I’ll say goodbye forever.
Luke’s jaw drops open when he sees me. “That’s the dress,” he says. “We’re taking it.”
“But Luke…” I get closer to him and lower my voice, hoping Irene won’t hear even though I know she will. “It costs five-thousand dollars.”
He doesn’t even flinch. “Yeah, so? That’s how much dresses cost.”
How does he know how much dresses cost?
“That’s actually one of our cheaper dresses,” Irene adds haughtily. I’m really beginning to dislike this woman.
“I’m just not sure I feel comfortable…”
“Don’t worry about it—it’s only a few thousand dollars.” Luke glances at his watch. “Come on, we still need to get you shoes.”
I feel slightly ill as I think about how much money Luke just spent on me as we drive to his apartment. I didn’t know shoes could cost that much. We also had to buy a pair of black pantyhose, since mine all have rips in them. I generally just wear slacks to work.
Luke seems unconcerned though, as he sends out an email on his iPhone. It’s amazing how he types with his knuckles, since he can’t use his fingers. I didn’t even realize I was staring until Luke looks up at me and says, “What?”
“Nothing,” I say quickly. “Just… it’s hard to hit the keys on those things, isn’t it?”
“I train myself to do everything I need to do,” he says.
I nod at his crisp white dress shirt. “How do you fasten the buttons?”
He smiles crookedly. “I can’t. My cleaning woman makes sure all my shirts are buttoned for me, and I just put them over my head. I’ve got a little button threader if I have one or two buttons left.”
“Well, thanks… I think.” He shoves his phone back into his pocket. “After what I went through after my injury, it was really important for me to be completely independent. The level of my injury… if it were any higher, I would need help for things—it wouldn’t be negotiable. But the way things are, it’s still not a piece of cake.”
“Did you go to rehab after your injury?”
He hesitates. “Not right away. It may shock you to hear this, but I did not do a great job adjusting after I got hurt. I was one of those guys who didn’t want to hear my diagnosis. There was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life as a quadriplegic, dependent on a wheelchair. I was going to walk again, dammit—all that shit.”
I can just imagine that. “So what happened?”
He rubs at his jawline with his knuckles. “My parents enabled me. They let me move back in and had people wait on me hand and foot. I only got out of bed to do therapy, and all of it was focused on unimportant things, like trying to get my stupid legs to move again. I… I could barely feed myself. I couldn’t roll over in bed on my own. I needed help getting dressed. Shit, it’s embarrassing to think about it.”
“Well, you obviously turned things around.”
“Eventually,” he sighs. “It took me two goddamn years. Two years of lying in bed and getting every complication you could imagine. Finally, one day I was lying in my bed and I was hungry. Simple enough, right? So I reached for the call button for my nurse, but because my hands don’t work, I accidentally knocked it off the bed. There was no way for me to get it on my own, so I just started yelling for her. Yelling my lungs out for my nurse just so I could get a bite to eat. And I was like, ‘Is this really my life?’” He shakes his head. “I was done. I talked my parents into putting me in an inpatient rehab program, and that was the start of a new life for me.”
“So I guess it all worked out,” I say.
He flashes me an unreadable expression. “Yeah,” he finally says. “It worked out.”
I clear my throat, desperate to change the topic. “I think Irene has a crush on you.”
He rolls his eyes at me. “I don’t think so.”
“She was totally flirting,” I insist.
“Of course she was flirting,” he says. “Do you know how much commission she makes off me each year? I probably single-handedly pay her rent. There’s a difference between someone liking you for your money and liking you for yourself.”
“See, I don’t have that problem,” I say. “Anyone who likes me for my money is very deluded.”
“Well, it sucks,” Luke says. “Especially when it’s a woman and you don’t realize it right away.”
He looks kind of sad all of a sudden. I wonder how many of his recent past relationships have been with women who were only interested in him for his money. By the expression on his face, I’m guessing it’s a lot.
Luke’s house is amazing. Please excuse my language, but holy shit.
Compared with my one-bedroom apartment or even my parents’ house in Jersey, this place is like a mansion. It’s huge. The estate stretches out over the length of practically an entire block. The furniture all looks brand-new and obscenely expensive, and he’s got the most high-tech entertainment system I’ve ever seen. And did I mention his house is enormous? I feel like if I wander too far away, I’ll get lost. I’m glad I’ve got my cell phone.
Luke grins at my expression. “So what do you think?”
“It’s…” I clear my throat. “Okay. Very nice.”
“Wasn’t cheap,” he says. “I don’t want to give numbers, but trust me, it cost a little more than your dress.”
I believe him. He lives in Lexington, which is known for being a fairly wealthy neighborhood with expensive houses. I was considering living there way back when, but it’s a little too far from Boston and the rents are insane. I guess that isn’t much of an issue for Luke, though.
God, how can I go back to my tiny apartment after seeing this house? It’s so unfair! This place is amazing.
The house is two stories and I notice a staircase in the living room with a seat attached to the banister. “What’s that?” I ask him.
“Oh,” he says. “That’s in case I want to get upstairs. I’ve got an old spare wheelchair up at the top. But I’ve got my bedroom, my office, and everything down here. Upstairs are just the guestrooms. I wanted a one-story place but I didn’t see any I liked as much as this house. I could have torn it down and built a new one, but I didn’t want to go through the hassle.”
I gaze up the stairs. I guess there isn’t much need for one person to have a second story.
“Can I get you a drink?” Luke asks.
“Do you have Perrier?” I don’t know why I asked for Perrier. I don’t even want it. But it feels like the kind of thing you should be drinking in a house like this.
“Perrier?” Luke stares at me. “I’ve got… tap water? Or wine? Bourbon? Vodka?”
“Yes, wine, please,” I say. Lord, I need a drink.
I follow Luke to his small bar (he has a bar—in his home!) and he pours me a glass of wine, as well as one for himself. I’m shaking a bit as I pick up the glass. “You okay, Ellie?” he asks me.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I swallow. I down the wine in about two gulps.
“Good,” he says. “Now go get dressed.”
Luke tells me to go upstairs to one of the fifty billion guest bedrooms he has up there. At the top of the stairs, I see his spare wheelchair leaning against the banister. Unlike the chair he usually sits in, this one looks more like the kind I sat in when I got my tonsils out at the hospital. It’s large and clunky, with wonky footrests. It’s the kind of wheelchair you might see someone’s elderly grandfather sitting in. I can see why Luke doesn’t like to come up here much.
I wander into one of the spare bedrooms and I put on the fantastic black dress. I do my make-up, making my eyes look dark and sexy, and I wear my hair loose and shiny. As I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, I think this might be the best I’ve ever looked in my life. I feel so incredibly sexy.
When I come out of the bedroom, I see Luke has put on a new, black jacket, and he is in the middle of trying to get a tie around his neck. The tie is already tied, and he’s just putting it over his head. He looks so good in that dark jacket. It makes his eyes look very intense. His face is clean-shaven and the vague smell of his aftershave is just as tantalizing as it was sixteen years ago. He seems to even be sitting up a little straighter in his chair.
With his arms over his head, the buttons on his shirt strain slightly against his gut. He didn’t have a gut back in college. He had a perfect body. I know because I’ve seen him naked. Once.
It wasn’t that big a deal. Really.
It was the night of Primal Scream. This is a semiannual Harvard tradition that occurs on the night before final exams. It’s a way to relieve stress. Basically, the students (mostly of the male variety) run a lap around Harvard Yard screaming at the top of their lungs. Also, they’re completely naked.
I wasn’t planning on running Primal Scream. First, I was a girl. Nice girls don’t run around campus naked, even on nights when it’s socially acceptable. Especially when they’re mostly skin and bones. Second, we were in the throes of a New England winter. The temperature was currently sixteen degrees. There was ice on the ground.
But I still wanted to watch it. Delia and I bundled up in our down-laced winter coats, put on our warmest hats, and perched on the steps of our dorm to see the boys run past. Even with all that padding, we were hugging ourselves and bouncing up and down to keep warm. “I’m freezing,” Delia said. “My teeth are chattering. Look!” She showed me her quivering jawline.
We were near the end of the circle so we got to watch as the herd of naked students made their way toward us, desperate to find their friends with clothing. I heard in the spring, they run pretty fast, but right now there was so much ice on the ground that the boys were moving almost in slow-motion in order to avoid falling on their bare asses. I could pick out each individual body, each individual set of genitals. I tried not to look, but it was impossible not to.
“Hey, there’s Luke!” Delia said.
And then I saw him. Luke Thayer, completely naked. And… oh. My. God. If I thought he looked good dressed, he looked incredible naked. He had such a perfect body—slim yet well-defined muscles in his arms and legs and chest, his limbs covered with a healthy layer of golden hair. I felt my jaw fall open. I’d heard he rowed crew, and clearly, it had paid off. I was so mesmerized that I barely even noticed he was walking towards me.
“Hey, Twelve Fingers!” he cried.
He was standing about three feet away from me, completely naked. I had never been so close to a naked man before. Considering I was cold in my coat, he must have been freezing, but he seemed comfortable. I, on the other hand, was having some difficulty taking deep breaths. I couldn’t look him in the eyes, but then again, where the hell was I supposed to look?
“Hi,” I finally said.
“I hope you realize how cold it is.” Luke grinned. “I wouldn’t want you to think this is all there is.”
“Uh…” I said. I didn’t know what he was talking about at the time, but Delia later explained to me that he was referring to his penis. Although if he was apologizing for that, he didn’t have anything to apologize for. Not that I looked or anything. Heaven forbid.
For the last sixteen years, that’s the image I’ve had in my head of what Luke Thayer looked like naked. That’s not the reality anymore—it’s very clear. But for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about what this version of Luke might look like naked.
He finally gets the tie over his head, then he starts fumbling to tighten it. “Do you need any help?” I ask.
I remember too late his whole speech about wanting to be independent with everything. He looks like he’s about to refuse, but then he raises his eyes. His mouth falls open. For like a full minute, we’re both just kind of standing there, staring at each other stupidly.
He swallows hard. “Jesus, Ellie.”
“You like it?” I ask, feeling shy all of a sudden for some reason.
“Are you joking?” He reaches his hand out as if he wants to grab me, then drops it back onto his lap. “I wish we weren’t going to this party. I wish…”
“What?” I squeeze my hands into fists. I don’t know what I’m hoping he’ll say. But I’m having thoughts about him that are very out of the ordinary for me. I’m thinking about what his lips would feel like, his hot breath against my skin.
He grabs the wheels of his chair and shifts his weight. “I, um… nothing. Nothing.” He smiles, although it looks forced. “Actually, if you could help me with the tie, that would be great.”
I regret having asked, because it means I have to get all up in Luke’s business. He smells too nice. I’m worried I’m going to do something stupid, so I quickly adjust his tie and take two steps back. Then a third step.
I shake my head, trying to clear it. What the hell got into me? This man is my boss. No, my boss’s boss’s boss. And that’s only the first reason this would be a mistake. I knew when I was eighteen that Luke and I weren’t right for each other. Nothing has changed. We come from two different worlds.
Anyway, it’s not like he’s interested in me.
I grab my purse from his couch, feeling very much like Cinderella going to the ball. “I miss dressing up,” I say. “I shouldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve had a date.”
“Hmm,” Luke says. “I’m sure I have you beat.”
I gasp. “You’re kidding, right?” I stare at Luke. He may be in a wheelchair, but he’s still handsome as hell. It’s hard to believe he could be having such a long dry spell.
“No, but thanks for not making me feel weird about it.” He rolls his eyes. “It’s like I said, it’s hard to tell if a woman likes you for your money or yourself. I mean, it’s one thing if they like you but also find the money a turn-on. I could deal with that. But when they’re just tolerating you because of the money, well…”
I don’t know what to say to that.
“My most recent girlfriend, Rebecca, was the last straw,” he says. “We were together for a year, and I thought it was going well. But it wasn’t. She only liked me for my money. And even that wasn’t enough.”
There’s a bitter edge to his voice when he talks about this woman. I wonder what she did to him.
“It’s fine,” he says sharply. “It just… doesn’t make me want to jump out there into the dating pool.”
I should tell him some of my bad date stories. That would put things in perspective for him. The last guy I dated would only listen to heavy metal music—if I even attempted to change the station in his car, he would swat at me. There were other things I didn’t like about him, but that one stood out—I couldn’t imagine a life where my eternal soundtrack was heavy metal.
“So how about you?” he says. “How come you don’t have a more active social life? I mean, I have a good excuse, but you’re gorgeous.”
“I’m not gorgeous,” I mumble. I’m not. Really. Even in this fantastic dress, I’m not even close.
“Of course you are,” he says, as if debating the matter was ridiculous. He studies me for a second. “Oh shit, you’re not a lesbian, are you?”
“Luke!” Why does everyone keep saying that?
“Well, I just can’t figure it out,” he says.
Hmph. I don’t think it’s quite so much of a mystery. Honestly, I don’t see how more people aren’t single. It seems amazing that so many people could find someone else that they’re compatible with and attracted to. I blame desperation and possibly alcohol for the number of marriages out there.
To be continued...