Saved by the bell. I have to get out of that living room before Kris even starts thinking in French. There is only so much a girl can really take. As it is I catch him looking at me in a tired, hopeful way. His eyebrows raise a little and his eyes just follow me around the kitchen. With two towels wrapped around his hands, he takes the roasting pan from the over and prods the carrots with a fork.
“Done?” he asks. He just tasted one, he knows the answer. Poor guy doesn’t even trust himself to make dinner.
There’s an actual dining room, but Kris puts plates on the kitchen table. It’s cozy in here with the warmth of cooking. He transfers the meat, potatoes and veggies to a dish then watches as I strain the leftover juices into a bowl and pour them over the food. He won’t let me carry anything, though the roast weighs less than four pounds. Instead I get us another round of beers.
He pulls out my chair like an awkward first date, then pushes me in close to the table without so much as grazing my back.
“Thank you, Riley.” He says my name a lot, more than people usual do. I like the way it sounds with the r rolling softly around on his tongue before sliding into the rest of my name. But then I think he’s probably reminding himself that I’m not her.
“Thank you for inviting me over.”
He dips his head; that fall of hair covering one cheek. “Not so nice when I make you cook your own dinner.”
I pass him the carving knife. “You did half the work.”
We were doing okay, and now I want to cry. His dark brown eyes are wide and soft, like he wants me to repeat what I just said. Like a kid earning praise from a parent when all he wants to do is make them proud. It’s just dinner, I feel like saying. It’s obviously more than that to Kris.
And as dinners go, it’s pretty great. We compliment the food repeatedly as we search for other things to talk about. I ask about Quebec and he tells me about summer. He asks about college and I tell him about California. Distracted by the food, conversation seems to come more easily to him. We talk about movies and books and places we’ve visited. He goes to the fridge for drinks and when he comes back, he inches his chair closer to mine at the corner of the table.
Finally we finish. It’ll be a while before there’s room for dessert and the moment he realizes that, a hard shell of worry forms on his face like ice on water. More time, no set plan. I know he’s having a hard time of it but I’m getting pretty tired of seeing him panic at the idea of having to hang out with me. Suddenly I feel as if I’ve overstayed my welcome.
“You can eat the dessert tomorrow, I’m so full.” I start to collect dishes from the table, piling them. This has probably been a really big day for him and I want to be sympathetic. It’s tough when he looks at me like I’m a savior one moment and a leper the next. I make it to the sink with an armload of plates before his chair scrapes across the floor.
I’ve never seen a man standing look so small. His shoulders are rounded, his head hangs just enough so he can still see me through eyes looking up. Even his knees seem to bend a little, like he’s holding up something heavy.
I know it’s a bad idea and I don’t care. I take three steps and wrap my arms around him.
He exhales loudly. It’s not a sigh, it’s a forced breath like I punched him in the gut. But really he’s just making room. Every part of him is heavy as it anchors itself to me. I put my face into his neck this time and let one hand stroke his long hair.
“I’m sorr…,” he starts.
“Shhh.” I don’t want him to apologize for the way he feels. I just want him to feel better. He relaxes another inch, separating his hands from around my waist and pressing each one flat to my back. We stand there forever, just hugging it out. Some of the tension in his body eases and his breathing softens to a normal rate.
“Riley,” he says quietly. That’s it.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to think, standing her holding her like I have the right to be this close to anyone right now. This is the third time she’s been in my arms and the third time I’ve felt like I should never let go. Pressed against me, Riley feels the way honey tastes: warm, sweet, slow.
I tell myself again what Vero said: “Take it slow.” I don’t think that included Riley rushing to hug me. I must have looked as bad as I felt to inspire that reaction. Not that I’m complaining.
No words come to mind, not that I’d share. Weakness for letting it go this far, sadness that if she comes to care about me she’ll just end up hurt. I hate myself already for not being able to stop this. Her fingers rake through my hair, making me tingle from head to toe.
“I know you had a bad time,” she finally says. Her back pushes against my hands and looks me in the eye. “Vero told me.”
I knew V would have and I’m glad. I may be spineless but at least I’m not a liar. Riley’s not done though, and her words surprise me.
“I’m so sorry, Kris. No one should ever have to feel like that.”
I wonder what she thinks I feel – what she sees on my face every time her brow knits and she looks ready to. I wonder which emotion from my arsenal Vero chose to highlight. My hands rest at the small of Riley’s back as she stays close.
“Unwanted,” I say out loud. I don’t mean to share it with her, but it just comes out. It sums up just about everything, including how pathetic I feel confessing to a stranger at nine o’clock on a Saturday night. Next I’ll start crying and then we sign each other’s yearbooks. Riley doesn’t say anything else. She just slips back into my chest and rests her face against my collarbone. The tip of her nose touches the pulse in my throat. If I tipped my head down I could kiss her lips. To my credit, I simply stay still and hold her.
It lasts a long time. Riley rubs her fingers into my neck, gently massaging the tightness. The individual knots in my muscles begin to soften, pulsing as blood flow returns reaches to the long-dead spots above my heart. I moan a little.
“Come here,” she slips free and takes my hand. In the living room, she sits on the couch and puts a pillow on the floor between her feet. “Sit.” I definitely passed puppy obedience class because I don’t even ask why. Seconds later, her thumbs are pressed hard against the tendons at the base of my skull. I suck in a breath.
“Relax,” she urges. Her other fingers join in, pressing along the sides of my neck. It’s like the combination to a lock – the sides force the muscles in the back to cave. Soon her fingers are sliding deeper as she finds purchase among the tension. She rolls her wrists, making my neck circle.
“Mon dieu,” I whisper.
“Do you get migraines?”
I do. They’re awful. As I get older they have lessened – they were worst during junior hockey and my first few years with the Pens. But every once in a while I find myself crippled by a headache I’m powerless to fight.
“How can you tell?”
“Either that or you’re a swimmer. These muscles are really overdeveloped, right here.” I hiss sharply as she hooks her fingers into my skin. “That happens to people who carry tension all the time, like those who get migraines.”
“Do you get them?” That would be too much – someone who understands the pain and fear of an illness that targets your brain and which science cannot explain.
“No, but a lot of my clients do.” Riley moves her hands from my neck to the points where my shoulders start to rise. With a single pinch and press combination, she sends a searing pain through my shoulder. Then just as quickly, it’s gone. The pressure point beneath her fingers throbs dully.
“You’re a masseuse,” I realize out loud.
She puts her face down next to mine and I can feel she’s smiling. “And you are a mess.”
Normally this would be a very clinical experience for me. When I work on a client, I try to send positive energy their way while really working from a detached, anatomical standpoint. The musculature of the human body is like a puzzle and there are ways to help the pieces fit together.
But now I’m just torturing myself. Kris’ physical reaction is s blissful reward and I know I’m really helping him, maybe even more that I did by just being nice. But it changes our dynamic. Massage is very physical for the recipient, and as the practitioner I’m trained to keep it cerebral. Yet Kris’ skin threatens to sear my fingertips through his shirt and all I want him to do is kiss them. I work on his trapezius muscles for a minute – they’re so hard my fingers start to cramp.
“Are you seeing a physical therapist?” I ask, taking a break to flex my hands.
He shakes his head. “It isn’t usually this bad. Just since….”
Ah, the elephant in the room. Only now we’re touching and there is heavy breathing and physical release being shared. Just not that kind.
“You should see a trainer at least. If you get too tight, it could trigger another migraine.”
“I know,” he says quietly. I realize he’s been trying to decide what’s worse – the emotional pain or the physical. Then he turns slightly, pulling a handful of hair from his face. “You’re very good. Our trainer is a little… meaner.” His wide shoulders are between my knees and he looks up with those bottomless eyes. A hint of elfin smile plays on his lips.
“There are a few great people at my studio. I could make you an appointment.”
“Okay. You’re right, I should go.” He sighs, then pauses for a second. “You don’t….”
I don’t take clients who are friends, especially guys. Especially guys who look like they inspire French lingerie designs and late-night trysts. Especially guys who look at me the way Kris is – wounded, confused, desperate. I’d love to say I see lust in his eyes but I think it’s just the blood flow returning to his brain.
“Not people I know,” I tell him.
He sits up beside me on the couch, still lolling his neck and enjoying the freedom of movement. I think quickly of dessert and wish Kris were on the menu. But he’s a little out-of-season right now. Instead I decide to be grateful I could help him in another way, in any way at all.
We eat dessert in the kitchen, spooning ice cream and strawberries into the pound cake rounds and layering them up. The balsamic marinade goes over the top. Kris keeps the spoon in his mouth as he lets the first bite melt on his tongue.
“Delicious,” he says. I wish he were talking about me.
A few layers of ice between us have been broken. We’ve been alone together for hours with only a few two-alarm fires. We finally mentioned the issue looming over us; his recent heartbreak is almost a topic of conversation. He told me his migraine secret and I told him my job secret. And I touched him without burning up. Maybe we’re going to be okay after all.
When dessert is gone and we’ve licked our silverware, I help Kris load the dishwasher. He soaps up my roasting pan and the other cookware I brought, dries it carefully and finds a bag to transport it. I straighten things slowly as we both try to drag the night out. I think he might ask me to hang around, watch a movie or something, but I hope he doesn’t. I’ll say yes and it’s not a good idea and then who knows what. But I’ll lose him right here tonight if I don’t take a step back.
I want her to stay. More than anything on God’s Earth I want her hands back on my skin, releasing me from the prison of pain I’ve been trapped inside. Already my body feels new and lithe. I will sleep through tonight, the first time in weeks. Riley has barely been here and yet she’s changed everything.
Of course I know it would be a mistake. I refuse to take advantage of her kindness, because that would not be kindness returned. Right now the kindest thing I can do I load up her car and watch her drive away.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” I admit. But it sounds wrong, somehow bulky when I mean to speak aerodynamically. “I had a good time tonight.”
Riley’s full smile is enough to make my body tense again. “Me too. See you Tuesday, Kris.”
I stay on the landing in the garage as she backs out carefully. When she reaches the road, it’s the first time she goes in the same direction I would go.
4 years ago