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Friday, 14 February 2014

First Chapter Friday: Once by M.S. Kaye



From the outside all was perfect—a peppy cheerleader with straight A’s—but it was all a lie. And I was no closer to understanding how to fix it. All I knew was I couldn’t take another boring political science or government class. If I didn’t figure out what was wrong with me soon, I was going to end up dropping school altogether, and then my family would be sure to disown me.
Maybe I didn’t need any great meaning. Could I find happiness working the counter at a 7-Eleven or maybe as a waitress at a Waffle House on the interstate? At least I'd be sure to meet interesting people—people who wouldn’t expect anything other than a “Have a nice day.” Maybe I could live alone with five cats and not have to fake interest in my girlfriends’ boy troubles. Maybe having zero ambition was the cure. Well, honestly, I didn’t have much of that now—secret and idiotic ambitions, but not realistic ones.
The train to take me back to my life finally pulled up, and I stuffed my notebook back in my bag—the notebook that held all, everything and nothing. I had just the small shoulder bag and a duffle with a few clothes, so it was easy to carry everything myself. I hadn’t bothered with the trendy outfits and make-up on this little excursion to Chicago. It was freeing, but I knew I'd fall back into the same old expected habits once I returned. I was a good girl and I always did as expected—on the outside. Despite my light packing, I still caught my duffle in the doorway of the train.
“Let me help you.”
Someone took the bag from my hand, and I turned to see a man smiling at me, not the usual smile I received from men, but as if he honestly was being a gentleman. And there was something more in his face. Or was it the odd combination of the kindness in his black eyes, and the scar that ran from his eye down the side of his cheek to his ear?
I forced myself to stop looking. “Thank you.”
After climbing the few steps up into the train, I turned to take my bag.
He didn’t give it. “I don’t want you getting stuck in the hall. I may not be there to save you.”
I smirked.
His mouth strained as if he was working to stop from smiling wider. “Which compartment?”
I submitted and led the way, expecting to have to brush him off yet. I opened the door, and then turned, and he relinquished my bag without another word. My hand smoothed across his rough skin, much rougher than I was used to. The guys I knew all claimed to be tough, but most had never truly worked, never manual labor, only football practice. It was funny that football players were supposed to be such tough guys. They always seemed to be the biggest babies.
He walked back the way he had come, and…
Why was I watching him?
I went into the tiny compartment and set my bags on the seat next to me, fully intending to stare out the window at the flat Illinois countryside. Then I pulled my notebook back out. I often wrote sketches of the people I met. I felt like I had to write him down. But what was I supposed to write? I hadn’t really met him, so I decided on capturing his contrasting features.
“He had sleek dark hair that had been grown out, not as a result of wanting to change the style but simply because he’d been too busy and preoccupied to bother with the barber—and he definitely went to a barber, not a salon. Eyes black, startlingly intense but soft somehow as if he’d learned much from a hard life.”
I couldn’t decide on his ethnicity—white but mixed with...Southeast Asian? Maybe Latino? Or perhaps even Middle Eastern.
“His skin was golden from outdoor labor, not dark really, just golden. The labor also shaped his frame, solid but not ripped. He had probably never seen the inside of a gym and would think nautilus equipment ridiculous, lifting for the sake of vanity when the exertion could be used for some good. He was soft-spoken but had obviously gotten into trouble at some point. What could cause a scar like that?”
The train lurched away from the station, and I lay the book on my lap while I wondered if anything I’d written was correct.
I skipped lunch, my eyes glazed from watching the blank farmland, but at least my mind was blank as well for awhile. In the afternoon, I meandered out to the public cars to see if I could coax a snack out of one of the waiters. I found one when I entered a lounge area—a tall gangly boy, an easy target.
Flipping my hair over my shoulder, I smiled pleasantly, maybe a little dull, but it always worked. Intelligence was not a key factor to men.
“Excuse me,” I said.
He turned, and I saw it was working. Actually, I was surprised. I didn’t even have make-up on.
“Um...I fell asleep and missed lunch.” I tilted my head and smiled. “Do you think…”
“Sure,” he said brightly. “What would you like?”
“Water and fruit?”
“No problem.” He left quickly, and I dropped back to my real facial expression.
Laughing from behind me.
I turned. It was the same man from earlier, seated in the corner by the door. I was about to walk away, faking anger but really feeling humiliation and shame.
Then he spoke. “Poor boy didn’t stand a chance.”
I hid the shame with annoyance. “Do you listen to other people’s conversations often?”
“Only if they’re entertaining.”
I thought about leaving, but I really was hungry so I found a seat a few rows away on the opposite side of the aisle, where I could still see him.
The waiter returned shortly, smile hung from his ears, and I dismissed him as politely as possible. His shoulders stooped as he walked away.
My appetite disappeared. I set the plate on the seat and pulled my knees up to my chest as I resumed staring out the window.
“May I join you?”
I knew who it was without looking up. “Whatever you want.”
He took the seat across from me. “Aren’t you hungry?”
The shame had grown with his proximity. I only shook my head.
He paused and then added in the softest voice, “He’ll live, you know.”
I couldn’t pull off the dumb bubbly thing with him so I didn’t answer.
He didn’t push.
The afternoon faded, the horizon a gold backdrop outlining the trees that spotted the fields. The last bit of sun streamed through the clouds filling the train, so bright that it washed out the colors of the compartment. Everything, even the reds, turned a hazy shade of beige.
I was hyperaware of him and noticed he was now perfectly still. I glanced over to see him watching me. He met my eyes and then quickly looked down. He closed his book.
“I’m sorry.” He stood and walked away down the aisle.
Great. I’d managed to cause the discomfort of two perfectly nice men already today, and who knew what the evening might hold.
I sat a little while longer, but then the waiter came back and retrieved the plate of uneaten food. He didn’t talk but silently slunk away. I escaped back toward my compartment.
Apparently, it was my day to be a plague. I stopped as I met someone in the hall. Of course it was the man from earlier. I pressed my back to the wall in the narrow hallway to let him pass. He had to brush against me to make it by.
If I had room to stagger, I would have.
His scent was like nothing I’d experienced before, not cologne, not even scented aftershave. It was like clean linen and mahogany. The slight contact showed me I was right about his having a solid frame. I’d never felt a reaction like this. My heart pounded and everything turned warm. I’d felt attraction before, but this was more than I was equipped to handle.
“Sorry,” he murmured. Then he paused to look back.
I couldn’t move.
“You should have dinner,” he said. “You didn’t eat breakfast or lunch.”
I looked up. How did he know I hadn’t eaten breakfast?
“You didn’t move from that bench at the train station all morning,” he said.
I didn’t answer.
With a small smile and the roll of his eyes, he took my hand as if playfully dragging his best friend. I gripped automatically. He led, and I followed. I had no choice. I had to restrain myself from holding with both hands—from stopping and kissing him right there in the hall.
I pulled at my sanity. What was I thinking? Aside from my father, I never let men lead me, which always seemed to annoy them.
The man managed to find us a little table in the corner of the packed dining car. There was no chair for him to hold, but he helped me take my seat in the booth. My fingers dragged across his up-turned hand, before he slid in across from me. A few seconds of awkward silence passed—well, awkward for me. I was trying to keep my heart in its place.
“I’m Jonathan, by the way.” His voice was quieter than it was earlier. It reminded me of the hum of far-off rushing water.
“Becca not Becky, am I right?”
“How’d you know?” I hated being called Becky.
“You’re too sweet. Never trust a girl whose name ends in Y. I’ve never known a Missy or Stacey I could trust.”
My eyes fell, and I scoffed, “Sweet,” under my breath.
“So, you can control men.” He reached across the narrow table to lift my chin. “That doesn’t make you a bad person.”
I took a breath and tried to smile.
He took his hand away. It felt as though his light touch left a visible imprint.
“So, where are you headed?” I said.
“St. Mary’s University.”
“Where’s that?”
“Baltimore,” he said. “Where do you go to school?”
“University of Virginia.”
“Isn’t this a kind of round-about way to get there?”
I sighed. “I needed time to think.”
“What’ve you decided?”
“I don’t know. I…I don’t know.”
“What do you want?”
His gentle eyes seemed to pull information out of me. I'd’ve told him anything, even the things I wouldn’t admit to anyone else. “I want to write, but…”
“My father wants me to be a lawyer, to take over his firm someday. It’s been his dream since he first decided I was smart enough, and my mother wants it just as much. I’d be the first woman to run it.”
“But you don’t want it.” His tone wasn’t persuasive in either direction, like he was just pointing out facts.
“No, but…”
His expression was calm, patient.
“He’ll disown me,” I said. “Everything’s been planned and all expectations fall on me. It’s not only that I don’t want to, but I’m scared that I won’t be able to. You have to have passion to be good at something.”
“You feel passion for writing.”
“But I know what he’ll say—I can hear the exact tone of his voice—that I can’t make a living with it, that it’s childish and selfish, that I need to honor my family and use the intelligence they’ve given me for some good.”
“Can your pencil do good?”
I looked at my hands on the table. “I think so, or at least in the right hand it can.”
He lightly touched my fingertips with his. “You have lovely hands.” His thumb brushed the patch of thicker skin on my right middle finger. “Written word can transform.”
Finally someone who understood. He seemed to love type on a page as much as I did—his book sat on the seat next to him.
“But he can’t see that,” I said.
“And the money?”
“I don’t need all the things he thinks I do. I don’t care if I have to waitress to pay the rent.” I sighed. “But he’d be embarrassed of me. He wouldn’t say it in so many words, but I'd see it in his eyes.”
“You’re a good daughter, Becca.”
I moved to hold his hand, but he drew it back and looked over at the approaching waiter.
“What can I get you to drink?” Why did it have to be the same gangly boy? He only made eye contact with his pad of paper, and his voice was clipped.
“Wine. Whatever you have that’s red,” Jonathan answered.
“I.D.,” the waiter said, only to me. Thank goodness I just turned twenty-one.
He read the date and then set it on the table, not into my open hand, and walked away.
“When was your birthday?”
“Two weeks ago. Why did he only ask for mine?” I didn’t need to fake annoyance this time. “You can’t be more than twenty-eight.”
He raised his eyebrows. “People usually think I’m older.”
“You only seem older.” He looked perfect—more with every expression and gesture.
Jonathan opened the menu.
I opened mine as well and tried to read the words.
The waiter returned and set a bottle of wine on the table. He didn’t stay long enough to pour.
Jonathan handed me a glass, one of the water glasses, not the wine glasses. “Have you ever drunk?”
“I’m a college girl.”
His lips twitched.
My tone was defensive. “I don’t like the taste of beer.”
“You’ll like this better than stale frat house Budweiser.”
He took a sip, and I noticed another scar, on his wrist and traveling up his palm.
“It’s nothing,” he said as he set his glass down on the table.
I pulled his hand closer to trace it. I was too chicken to ask about the line drawn from his eye to ear.
“Are you all right?” I said.
“It’s not what you think.”
“What do I think?”
He kept my hand but flipped his over, concealed the scar. “It wasn’t self-inflicted.”
I didn’t let go of his hand.
He snatched my license off the table and examined. “Hm.”
The mortification hit as I realized what I looked like in comparison to the picture. Why hadn’t I at least brought eyeliner and a curling iron?
“You’re prettier when—”
I took it back and looked down to stuff my license into my pocket. “I know.” The first man I really wanted to think me pretty, and—
“When you don’t try so hard,” he finished.
I looked back up. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.
He met my eyes for a few seconds.
The waiter reappeared, a skinny white frame, as straight as a flagpole.
Jonathan drew his hand away and then waited for me to order. I picked something at random. Then Jonathan ordered, and the waiter walked away.
Jonathan sipped his wine again but used his left hand.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“What would you like to know?”
I almost changed my question. I never understood why it felt rude to ask about family origin. “What’s your ethnicity?”
The corners of his eyes tweaked upward for a split second as if he thought something amusing. Then his expression sobered. “I don’t know.”
How could he not know? I tried to keep the confusion off my face.
“I’ve never met my parents.” He smiled a little. “And what about you? Do those freckles mean you’re Irish?”
I had a dusting of them across the tops of my cheeks, dark blonde to match my hair. I usually covered them with powder. “I’m a mutt—Irish, Swedish, German. Just about any Caucasian bloodline leads to me, a boring white girl.”
His hand twitched as if he was fighting with himself. Then he reached to touch my face, his fingertips tracing my cheekbone over to my hairline.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Certainly not boring,” he murmured.
His fingers curled into my hair, and I thought he was going to...but then he pulled his hand away. He looked out the window for several seconds, at the fading flat countryside.
Finally, he looked back at me. “May I ask you something?” he said.
I only nodded. I was still trying to remember how to breathe.
“Who are you seeing?”
My shoulders slouched. “No one.”
His eyebrows lowered. Confused or disbelieving, or was there…was that frustration? “Why?” he said.
I couldn’t meet his eyes. “They say I’m a tease.”
His lips curved, but only a little, as if he were fighting desperately to hide his amusement. “They’re too easy to control, am I correct?”
I turned away, and of course, ended up looking right at the waiter who brought the plates. Luckily he ignored me—except when he peeked back over his shoulder.
The corners of Jonathan’s eyes turned up—at least his frustration had disappeared. “You do have a talent.”
I stared at the plate, my face tingeing from shame and anger, internal anger. “But I’m not nice.”
His voice turned soft. “Yes, you are.”
I met his eyes. He deserved the truth. “I always hurt them. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. We’ll be dating, and everything seems fine. Nice guy, smart enough, attractive. But when it gets more serious, when we’re alone one night, and I think I’ll finally do it, I…can’t.”
“You don’t want them.”
I didn’t know why I felt the need to tell him so much and attempted to deflect with teasing. “What makes you so immune?”
He laughed under his breath, not the amused kind.
“And what about you?” I fought not to show how uncomfortable I felt. “Who are you seeing?”
“Dating is frowned upon,” he said. “What do you write?”
Frowned upon? I couldn’t think of a way to ask what he meant without seeming rude, especially since he’d brushed by it so quickly. “Nothing important.”
“You seem to have found an awful lot of unimportance. You didn’t stop all morning.”
“You were watching?”
Barely loud enough to hear, he said, “Of course. You were sitting in the sunlight.” His fingers touched a few strands. “Your hair shines gold.”
Unable to stop myself, I held his hand in place—his right hand, then touched his scar with my fingertips. It was hardly noticeable if not in the light, no discoloration.
“You were young when you got this.”
“Yes.” He looked away, out to the scenery speeding by. He seemed as if he was more used to conversations being one-way, with him helping and not sharing of himself.
“How?” The scar wasn’t like the one on the side of his face but jagged as if by ripping not slicing.
“Children can be clumsy.”
“But you never were.”
He turned to me and hesitated. “No.”
“Does it hurt?”
“I’m better now.”
“No,” I said. “You’re not.” I could see it, though buried, pushed down by raw force.
He turned back to the window. He didn’t take his hand away.
“But you will be,” I said. “Eventually.” He had to be.
He looked back at me. In his eyes, there was stress but...hope? His fingers tentatively laced into my hair, and his head tilted slightly, as if he was admiring something. I didn’t understand. He didn’t look at me the same as other men. There was something to him I couldn’t read. His palm rested on my cheek as his thumb traced the blond of my skin.
His face tightened. He took his hand away and stood. “I’m sorry, Rebecca. I have to go.”
I watched him leave.
I didn’t finish the meal but made my way back to my compartment, a roomette they called it. I realized it was much later than I’d thought. The outside was solid ink. I figured out how to change the seat into a bed and lay down without bothering to change or even to remove my shoes. Staring out into the nothing, I tried to get my eyes to glaze, my mind to turn blank.
There was no use. My mind had found curiosity and something else—something more.
I had to distract myself. I placated my curiosity and pulled my phone from my bag. Hopefully, we weren’t too far out in the boonies. The signal was decent, so I clicked onto the internet, waited for it to load, and typed, “St. Mary’s University, Baltimore.” It took forever for the results to come up, and when they did, I didn’t have to click through any more than the first line. “St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, MD.” It was a Catholic seminary.
“Dating is frowned upon,” he had said. Of course it was.
Boy can you pick ‘em, Rebecca. Finally I found someone I could truly find interesting, fascinating, and he was already taken. Well, not yet. If I remembered correctly, it took about eight years of study before eligibility to take vows. Surely he couldn’t be that far along.
I sighed. No, he was old enough.
But why was he traveling? Or was he just taking a long weekend like me?
I found a website outlining the steps to priesthood and saw that I’d been correct about the eight years and also that a man must, of course, be unmarried and that the final step was a six month deaconship. Was that where he was going? Or coming back from?
We were traveling east, toward Baltimore, returning him home.
I dropped the phone to the floor and rolled onto my side. I prayed for a blank mind. Was it a sin to be attracted to a man who served God? I definitely wasn’t a good Catholic. I wanted him and didn’t care if he had a better purpose.
The thought of being at rest unfathomable, I went to the hall to aimlessly walk the train, confident he had retreated someplace hidden, away from the poison that was me. My worries from this morning seemed ludicrous. All of it was—expectations, opinions, plans, dreams. I knew what my problem was, but wouldn’t allow myself to think the words, more selfish, idiotic dreams. How could this happen so quickly?
Mercifully, I’d brought my notebook of all desires and no consequence with me. I decided to search for a quiet place. If I couldn’t make my mind blank, maybe I could fill it with something else, something shallow and less painful, something that didn’t stab so deeply.
Toward the front of the train there was a cafĂ©-style lounge. Nothing was served at this late hour, but it was still open for the passengers to sit at one of the tiny rounded banquettes. I slid across the red fake leather and opened my book, forcing myself to ignore the last page on which I’d written.
A small group of large people sat squished into the booth toward the other end of the car. They were a lively, smiling, and boisterous group, and I began my sketch, the careless, good-natured humor, the bright laughs and occasional unintentional snorts resulting from uncontrolled giggles. All in all a pleasant group, brightening the room, the red of the seats positively crimson.
But the color darkened as they left, or rather, glowed a dull gold.
His elbow on the table, hand in his hair, he poured over his book as he sat at the furthest booth. He had been hidden from view but was now the only thing I could see. I knew I should leave—leave him in peace, but I couldn’t. He was the torture I had to savor while I could.
“Hello, Jonathan.”
His head jerked up.
“May I?” I said.
He gestured for me to sit.
I took the seat across from him. “It’s late. Aren’t you tired?”
He paused, surely considering saying he was so he could escape. “No.”
“How long have you been at school?”
The pause was longer. “Eight years.”
“And six months?”
He took a breath. “Three days.”
The pain was deeper than I’d anticipated. It tightened my chest.
“I’m sorry, Rebecca,” he said.
Forcing my heart to stay in place, pinned to my ribcage by the point of a knife, I said, “You’re going to be good at it.”
His expression still stressed, he tilted his head slightly, curiously.
“You don’t preach,” I said. “You talk.”
“Thank you, Becca.”
I loved when he said my name like that.
He sighed as his eyebrows pulled together. “I knew I shouldn’t talk to you, but—” His jaw clenched. “You’re so beautiful. I wanted to see into your mind, to see what filled so many pages.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“I shouldn’t have.” His gaze fell, and he moved to close his book.
I put my hand on the page he had been reading and began pulling it toward me.
He laid his hand on mine and reached with the other, palm up. I'd have done anything he wanted and gave him my notebook, clean from the pillaging of any eyes but mine. We cautiously exchanged.
The pages under my fingers, the well-worn pages, made a gentle crinkling sound, the paper as delicate as a snake’s shed skin. Only one passage was underlined, with a deliberate and straight hand. We are to use wisdom and judgment to approve things that are excellent.
He watched me read. Then he turned his gaze to my thoughts spilled onto paper. My description of our previous compartment companions made his eyes smile. Then he turned one page back, to my portrait of him.
“Am I right?” I asked.
He looked up. “Exactly.”
“What’s the answer?”
He paused. “A switchblade.”
With my fingertips, I reached out and traced the scar across his cheek. “Did you win?”
He removed my hand and closed his eyes. “Yes.”
I slid his Book back to him. “This says we can find forgiveness.”
His eyes still closed, his jaw clenched. He bowed his head. “It also says ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
I took his hand in both of mine, petted his rough skin, and then brought it to my lips. He had a talent for guiding invisibly, but I didn’t know how to do that.
He watched me again. His eyes were intense, like the black of the night sky, and his forehead was furrowed, as if his emotions were scattered, as if he was shocked at my reaction, as if he had been sure his answer would drive me away. But I knew him. Already, I knew him.
“You’re still a good person,” I said.
His jaw clenched. “I’ve been trying to believe that.”
“I have faith in you.”
He continued to watch me. His forehead never smoothed, as if he was fighting for strength, but his eyes softened. He slid around the booth, closer to me.
I didn’t move, not sure what to do, what was right, what he wanted.
He leaned closer.
I only watched him.
He touched his lips to my cheek, the faintest pressure. I struggled to sit still, to keep my hands in my lap, not to grab hold of him. And then his lips were gone, such brief contact that I couldn’t be sure if he had actually kissed my cheek or if I wanted his contact so much that I imagined it.
He spoke in my ear. “You must be some kind of final test.”
My heart pounded into my ribs, against the point of the blade. “Are you going to pass?”
His lips brushed against my jaw. “I don’t know.”
He trailed to my neck, his mouth softly pressing. My hand curled into his hair, the other on his shoulder, holding, clutching. His mouth found mine, barely touching. His warmth invaded my head.
“God give me strength,” he murmured.
The door slid open, and the compartment filled with laughter.
He closed his eyes. Then he slid away from me.
Every beat of my heart punctured.
With a chirpy voice, the woman from the little group of large people said, “Woops.” Her red curls bounced with mirth.
“Good night, Rebecca.” Jonathan stood and was walking away before I could fully comprehend what was going on, that he had kissed me, that he had stopped kissing me.
He slid the compartment door shut behind him.
I forced myself to look away.
His Book, it was still on the table. I placed it on top of my page of Jonathan then stood to leave. My legs felt numb. My whole body felt empty.
Her voice still chirpy, the redhead consoled, “He’ll be back. You’ve got him hooked.”
The blade in my chest twisted.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I ran, no idea to where I was running.
I caught up to him just as he stepped into his room. He met my eyes for a second. Then he disappeared behind the door, out of sight, out of reach.
I continued forward. My vision was blurry.
The halls were empty, almost every room sleeping. In a few minutes, or maybe it was an hour, I sat in my room. His Book in my hands, I traced the indented gold letters.
I hadn’t thought much about God in so long, not since Sunday school, not since my father’s practice had overwhelmed his and all of our lives. I hadn’t been to Mass, other than Easter and Christmas, in forever. Now all I could feel was jealousy. Surely, I’d be going to Hell for thinking like this, for coveting that which was already taken. He had a higher purpose, but I couldn’t stop from wanting him, from needing him. How could one train ride change everything? Everything had shifted clearer. All the decisions I’d agonized over were made. I felt no doubt, no confusion. I knew exactly what I wanted, and once I left this train, exactly what I'd do. But I was still on the train. And so was he.
There was no escaping, and one more thing became clear. My conscience fought it, but there was no point and no stopping me. I wasn’t going to be the good girl. I was going to do what I wanted for a change. I didn’t know if he’d allow it, but I knew for an absolute fact I wouldn’t be a tease with him.
He wasn’t God’s yet. Maybe he could be mine—once.
I brushed out my hair and changed clothes. The only pretty thing I’d brought was a camisole for sleeping, and I threw on my little white cotton shorts with it. I wore nothing more. I was confident I wouldn’t meet anyone in the hall being that it was after one o’clock. Everyone else was sleeping, but I was sure he wasn’t—and hopefully wouldn’t be anytime soon.
As I glanced in the mirror, I wondered what it was he saw. I didn’t do all the things with him that I did with other men—it was impossible to be fake with him—but he seemed to think the real me was good enough. Sweet and beautiful he had said. I prayed he could feel the same after tonight.
The roll of the rails under my feet was the only sound as I made my way to him. I knocked, two almost inaudible taps. His quiet footsteps paused just on the other side of the door.
“Jonathan,” I said.
The door slid half way open to reveal his face, tender but stressed, and half his bare chest. He was built exactly as I thought, naturally well-formed, much more beautiful than men in magazines. He was real.
His voice was subdued. “Aren’t you tired?”
My hand trailed from his shoulder to his wrist. His eyes tilted and chin moved just a fraction of an inch.
“No, I’m not tired,” I said, then brushed against him as I stepped in.
“It’s late.” His chest expanded more fully.
I didn’t bother with talking or explanations—he was smart and already knew what was going on. The real question remained. Would he allow it? I knew he’d most likely turn me away, but I had to try, though the knife would be sure to plunge from my ribs through to my spine.
My hand brushed his cheek, and I lifted to my toes to meet his lips.
He didn’t push me away but didn’t kiss back either.
“We shouldn’t.” His voice barely made sound.
I continued to taste him, and his lips began to move. Then he turned his head to the side, breathing faster. My hand on his cheek, I turned his head to face me. His eyes were closed.
“Please, Jonathan.”
He looked at me. He didn’t move for what felt like forever, as if he was reading me, discerning my intentions. I did my best to hide, to stop him from seeing why I was here, the real reason I was here.
“You want it this time,” he said.
“Please.” A tear spilled down the side of my cheek.
Something changed in his expression.
He took a step closer and met my lips. His hands curved over my neck, into my hair. My heart pounded, and his warmth made the tiny room spin. I'd have fallen if he hadn’t been holding me. Then his tongue slid against mine, and I couldn’t comprehend any other sensations. I’d never really been kissed before; not like this; no comparison.
I moved his hand past my shoulder, brushing against the silk of the camisole, to my waist, and he pulled me closer, pressing. If there had been any doubt or fight left, it was now completely gone. We weren’t stopping.
I pushed him back to sit on the bed and stood in front of him. I lifted the camisole off. He didn’t meet my eyes anymore, and his hand slowly crept up my skin to curve around my breast. Eyes closed, he swallowed.
I touched his forearm to encourage. “It’s been a long time for you.”
“Many years.”
“I’ll teach you the ropes.”
He smiled, then stood, picking me up, and he lay down with me on the narrow bed. “I’ll be doing the teaching.”
For half a second I tried to think of a witty retort, but then he was kissing me.
Time passed—I wasn’t sure how long—and we spent it simply absorbing the feel of each other, his lips at my neck, then trailing down my chest, and back to my mouth, no longer tentative. His touch was perfect. The roughness of his hands as they lightly trailed made my skin tingle, made everything tingle.
He shifted, and so quickly I wasn’t sure how he did it, he removed my shorts—my last article. His hand slid slowly down my skin, but paused before...
“Are you sure you want it?” he said.
I’d forgotten how to speak.
As I sat up, knees bent to the sides, I brushed my hand along his inseam up to his button and zipper.
His breathing doubled.
Gently, I moved fabric out of the way. I’d never actually touched a man, didn’t really know what I was doing, how to make it feel good for him
He found my lips, and with an arm around my shoulders, he lay me down.
This was the moment, the furthest I’d ever gone, and perhaps one brain cell retained enough lucidity to fully understand why boys were so frustrated when I stopped them. To have to stop now would be immeasurable torture.
Hovering over me, he kissed my lips, my jaw, my neck. I barely heard as he murmured, “Things that are excellent,” and before I could put any thought toward what that meant, he slowly began.
My breath pulled in, and my back strained.
He paused to caress me with his fingertips. “Focus on the pleasure,” he said then slowly continued. The pain was almost completely dulled. It quickly disappeared altogether.
I clung to him, moved with him. I tried to understand what he liked, what made him feel the best, what made him moan from his throat.
He was perfect, gentle, giving. He seemed to know my body better than I did. Every touch and movement was better than the last, better than I'd’ve imagined.
The tracks veered and sunlight spilled into the room, washed over us.
He touched my hair and then paused to close his eyes. He was entirely still.
I brushed my fingers along his neck. “I want you to.”
He was still for a second longer, and when he began again, I couldn’t understand exactly what he did.
My head rolled back as I moaned, “Jonathan.”
His head bowed, and his body stiffened as he pressed harder to me.
I held onto him.
Our bodies both slackened, all but collapsing. He lay on his side next to me.
I turned my head and touched his face. “You’ve got to be tired now.”
His lips curved.
I moved to lie facing him so I could caress him to sleep. He watched me with those piercing eyes, but I didn’t meet them, couldn’t meet them. He would see. I focused on the beautiful gold of his skin, the shine of his hair, the curve of his chest and arms, the way he let me touch him, as if his trust was perfect.
His eyes fell lower, and he drifted away. His expression was finally peaceful. I couldn’t pull myself away for several minutes, just touching him, my first but also my once.
I put the note I’d brought with me next to his hand laying on the white sheets and carefully leaned down to kiss his cheek. The tears already flowed, but I didn’t let them touch him as I whispered in his ear, “I love you.”
I ran down the hall.
We had to be close to the next stop, wherever it was. I glanced at my watch once back in my room, just as I felt the train coming to a stop. I threw jeans on over my shorts and my jacket and zipped it all the way up. The corridor had a few people in it now. They jumped back out of my way. The doors were closing when I made it to the exit.
My feet landed on solid ground, and gravity was suddenly too much.
I couldn’t stop and fell to my hands and knees as the train—as Jonathan left. Sobs overwhelmed me, a complete disaster right there in the middle of the platform. Most people stared, and a few offered to help. But I was beyond help.

Her first and also her Once.
Jonathan is studying to become a priest. He is three days from taking vows. He will not be a priest.

Rebecca’s major is pre-law. She is supposed to take over her father’s law firm. She will not be lawyer.

Their paths cross at exactly the right moment, when each most needs to hear what the other has to say. Jonathan’s structured life is turned sideways, but Rebecca also helps him learn how to forgive himself. It was self-defense, not murder. Rebecca finds the strength to stand up to her father, to be the real her. If Jonathan likes her writing, it must be worth pursuing.

They must each struggle to forge a new path without each other’s comfort and strength, with only memories of the one day that changed everything.

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