It was a dark and stormy night
The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of. –Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670
They were alone. The only sound was the hum of the engine and the light finger taps of snow clotting on the windshield.
“Are we going to fight about this?” Ike said, his face swinging lazily toward Paulette.
Her hair was askew, probably from the snowball fight and her eyes had a pleasant, sleepy quality.
“No.” She leaned over and shut off the engine. “I was thinking of picking up where we left off.”
Ike realized he was holding his breath as Paulette picked up his hand and put it on her knee.
He smirked, his fingers stroking over the skin-tight fabric of her leggings. “Your turn?”
“That’s the spirit,” she said as she cut his seat belt free, her warm fingers burrowing under wet fleece and T-shirt to get her hands on cool skin. He hummed his approval, sliding his hand up her thigh, stretching the span to feel the curves, his thumb burrowing into muscle.
“Predictable,” was her reply, though she writhed against his pressure, her own hands greedily pulling him forward, her lips parted, dark eyes fluttering shut. He twisted to get closer, in his hurry banging his knee against the gear shift, the kiss, an awkward collision of teeth and lips, cinnamon and beer. Tipping his face away to look at her, his hands closed over hard biceps beneath her leather jacket, and yes oh yes, her smirk answering his amusement. He dipped back toward those burning cinnamon lips, ecstatic sloppy kisser, just want a drunk boy wants.
It was just like at the party, push and demand, more fevered this time, and in his impatience, he was finding what she wanted, what she liked. But there was something in pulling back, in stoking the fire with a little oxygen, and for a moment, he studied her looking steadily back at him, holding her breath. Gravity pulls chemistry like tides, and nothing resists it for long, not that Ike wanted to. His breath was shallow and fast, and kissing her strange, a burning coal, the heat in simply being close to her, this close.
Everything about her was one big yes. It was a novel experience. She seemed so willing now, but No was coming. He knew it was. It always did. If she touched him, he could touch her back, but no more; those were the rules. Her rules, he was guessing. He should be keeping score, but it was happening too fast to keep track.
That look again. Her dark eyes watching him, it felt so dangerous the way she did that like she was reading his mind and he saw her doing it and knowing it. She pushed him back. Her hands skimmed down over his fly like the blind seeking the lost, his breath caught, and deep in her eyes he saw her thought. It was his thought.
The snow was piling up on the windshield, but they didn’t notice the cold.
Rules were lost, fuck rules, Ike was lost in this other kiss, his wettest wet dream, let her have her way, one hand twisting through her hair, the other splayed against the steering wheel, leverage against he did not know what. She certainly knew what she was doing. Sensation crashed through him, rippling from that central flame, shook him violently, shocks of pleasure wrung from places beneath language, his sense of body liquefying, here, at last, on fire, alone…
“Wait,” he said, struggling back into focus. “No, stop. I’m sorry. We can’t, not in Fred’s car.”
She stared up at him for a long time, crushing her lips with the back of her wrist.
“All right,” she said, thumping back into her seat. She glanced toward the house, but with the snow piling up on the windows, she couldn’t really see it. No lights were on. She sat like that for a while, hands clasping the seat between her spread knees, and then she bent forward, her head against the dashboard. He was hoping, after curtailing a desperately desirable act to spare Fred’s car, she wasn’t going to end up puking in it.
“My place then,” she said, addressing the footwell.
“Yeah?” His voice shook, he had barely dared to hope. Or maybe it was he was so damn cold all of a sudden. “Let’s go.”
It took a few embarrassing tries to rearrange his jeans, faint waves of pleasure now ebbing away, then he fumbled the ignition. Paulette was smiling at him as she reached into her pocket for a fresh stick of gum. Thank god. We’re still on.
The engine turned over. The car was completely blanketed in white.
“Look at that snow,” he said. It was damp and heavy, and the wipers took a few passes to get it off the windshield. “Private, anyway.”
Ike dashed out of the car, making fast work of clearing the windows with clumsy swipes of his sleeve, practically falling back into the driver’s seat. He sat for a moment with his hands in his armpits, teeth chattering so hard he was almost incoherent.
“W-w-where to?” and she supplied Bloomfield, so he wouldn’t have to talk over his shivering.
“You OK? You don’t sound so good.”
“I’m…I’m fine. Just t-t-turn on the heat.”
“The heat is on,” she said, holding a hand over the blower.
At that he nodded and shifted the car into drive. Joggling his head forcefully, he willed his eyes to focus as he edged the car into the fresh powder of the street. Paulette stared at him; she was pulling on fingerless gloves, but his whole body was shaking.
Her hand landed reassuringly on his thigh, so damn warm. The hand pressed against the denim, kneading muscle, edging higher, deeper, felt good beyond good, echoing that earlier groundswell. He turned his head just enough to see her eyes, shadowy in the dark and pearly light. She was talking or was going to talk, he wasn’t sure over the sound of the blower on high. Her breath plumed; she was talking.
“—and I’m sorry about that. Hey,” she said, snapping her gum and grinning mischievously. “You gotta relax. We got it this time.”
He shot her that sidelong glance that often looked fearful, but might have been playful. She couldn’t quite tell. But man, how he continued to tremble! It was love-sick Lloyd Dobbler all over again and she began to wonder if this was going to be one of those steamy-handprint, screwing in the bowels of the Titanic kind of nights. He maybe even looked a little like Leo DiCaprio in that flick, bad boy eyes in a good boy face.
They were headed the right way, back up Murray, and she got them onto South Negley, giving directions for turns when they came up. The snow was coming down heavily, visibility was poor, but he was taking it slow. No one was moving on the streets anyhow.
At the turn onto Centre, his hands slipped from the steering wheel. Paulette reached over and steadied it.
“Just tired,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”
But now she sat rigid in her seat, watchful, more of him than the road, a second silent driver. The split focus took some of the edge off the thrumming inside her, but only a little. And him? His thigh trembled under her hand.
God, he must be into me.
When they pulled at last into the alley behind her building and had parked, he turned to her. “I’ll see you in, if you want.” His voice was shaky and slurred.
The security light at the back door shone into the car. “My God, your lips are blue! I’m calling 911.”
He wasn’t into me.
He was freezing and in big trouble. Ike shook his head blearily.
“Yes, I am!” She burrowed into her pocket for her phone. Where was Con when she needed her? Having a happy little screw no doubt. “You’re too fucking cold, Ike. You need help.”
“No!” He slapped the phone out of her hand, looking panicky.
“Don’t be stupid—“ she started to say, but he was already out of the car.
She pushed through her door and sank into snow above her ankles, and before she could get to him, Ike stumbled and fell. She yanked him up and kicked the door shut. He’d collapsed almost his whole weight on her as he tried to get his feet under him.
“You’re coming in!” she shouted over the muffling snow and the wind.
Every breath was a heavy plume, and she was aware of her damp sweater as the wind blasted through it. Ike was soaked.
He didn’t seem to take in what she was saying. “You-you w-w-ant m-m—?”
“Ike! Look at me.”
He tried. Craning his face around toward hers, there was a strange, slow blinking of heavy-lidded eyes and his body shaking like a seizure.
“You’re cold. You’re in trouble. If you won’t go to the Emergency Room—“
He started lurching violently again.
“OK!” she shouted, the wind taking half the sound away. “We’re not going, but you’ve got to come in with me. Come—on!”
He leaned, in the wrong direction, his feet going out from under him. Paulette stopped again. Jesus. What was she going to do with him?
Biting her lip, she heaved him upright, stepped back and slapped him hard, straight across the face.
His head snapped up, looking vaguely angry. For a second, weaving and shaking, she did have his attention.
“Ike? You’ve got to listen to me. We’ll go slow, but we have to go together. About twenty steps and then stairs. OK?”
His head jerked which she took for agreement, so she got her shoulder up under his, locked her arm around his body and started to move again. She struggled to stay in synch with him, to throw her weight counter to his momentum to keep them from falling, and in this stumbling gait, they got to the stair rail. He slipped once and fell to his knees, and it took main force to get him up again; he grew heavier by the minute. Fuck, Duckworth. Lose a few pounds already. Somehow she got the door open, hurled him inside and shut the door. He collapsed against the far wall, but didn’t fall.
The usually chilly foyer seemed comparatively tropical.
Paulette took a deep breath and shut her eyes. She tried to think if Con had ever mentioned anything about this kind of cold, but she wasn’t sure. His hands were icy when she took hold of them. Propped against the wall, he must have been conscious, though unresponsive. Three short flights of steps. His breathing was shallow and fast, and he was shaking badly. She steeled herself, wrapped an arm around his ribs and coaxed him forward again. He did the best he could, one hand thrust out against the wall, whitened fingers splayed uselessly, as they staggered upward.
Inside at last, she got him to the couch, and she slid to the floor beside it. She was up again in a moment, dragging in all the blankets from her bed. Off went the fleece pullover, loafers, soaked jeans, T-shirt, boxers. Of course she noticed, because it was her habit to notice, all of the particulars of the body she was so unceremoniously exposing, but to her credit, she was unaware of what she noticed until considerably later. He almost seemed to be helping her at times.
She coaxed him to lie down, wrapping blankets around him like a cocoon, one after the other.
Her turn. She threw off her wet things in a heap on her bedroom floor, slipped into slippers and her long robe. For a second she thought of tossing hers with his in the living room, pretend that sex was in the offing. But it wasn’t. Fuck. Maybe coffee would help.
She knelt beside him. The normally flushed cheeks were drained to an unnatural whiteness, and he was still shaking. Laying a hand on his forehead, she said “Hang on, Ike.”
His eyes rolled toward her, the only sign he was capable of.
She put a pot of coffee on, fumbling coffee grounds over the counter. If only she’d thought of going straight to her bed, there would have been more room there, but she couldn’t move him again. Her muscles trembled with exhaustion.
Lifting the blankets she laid her cheek against his chest; he was still so cold. His heart beat slowly, his breath felt labored. The coffee pot beeped and she pulled away, rewrapping the blankets, without looking at his face. At worst, she still felt a little chilled, but thinking too much, right now, about any of this was not helpful. She filled a big mug of coffee, added some sugar and a bit of milk to cool it enough to drink.
Laying an arm across his body, she sat on the edge of the couch beside him. “Ike?”
He looked up at her, his body still shaking, pupils big and black, but his lips weren’t blue any more. She forced a deep breath. It was a form of defense, a spiritual discipline. When you’re scared you breathe, just breathe, and focus.
Cradling his head, she lifted him a little. “Try to drink this.”
She poured a little coffee into his mouth. When she was sure he swallowed, she lowered him again, and drank a large gulp. He made a sort of panting sound, which for some reason cheered her; he’d barely made a sound since they got in. Three more times, she gave him more of the coffee, until, between them, it was gone. Stripping her robe and slippers, she ducked under the blankets and curled tightly around his body. Draping one of his arms over her back, she flattened her face to his chest. His legs still felt like ice and set her to shivering all over again. She thought she heard him sigh once, as she listened to the thumping in his chest. In that way, she fell asleep.
It was still dark when she jolted awake in a cold sweat. Another falling dream. Instead of hitting the floor in that spastic instant of waking, she fell into a cradling arm that held her at the edge of the couch. She tried to calm down. A soft, warm breath was ruffling her hair. She tightened her free arm around the man she was curled against and for a second, it just felt good.
The warm breath spoke her name.
She lifted her face, felt her nose brush his. Their lips were close, but it was so dark down in the blankets she saw nothing.
“You OK?” she breathed back, pushing the covers away.
“I think so.” He shifted, making more room for her. “What happened?”
“The snow, you got too cold. Your lips were blue; you couldn’t even walk right.”
“I don’t remember that.” Absentmindedly, he was stroking her arm, soft circles with his fingertips from her wrist to the soft inside fold of her elbow. The hand was warm.
She shivered. “I almost killed you.”
There was a kind of cough that might have been a laugh. “You probably saved me.”
“Don’t be stupid–” she started to say, but was surprised when he kissed her, because of its tenderness and because she felt that rush again. “You still don’t feel so warm, Ike.”
“I will be.” He laughed, sinking further back into the cushions. “Can we stay here a little longer?”
Paulette nodded. In the ambient light seeping through the curtained windows, she could make out his face, mostly hollows and shadows, a darkened version of a familiar expression. It was hard to know who he was sometimes.
“Didn’t turn out like I thought it would, tonight,” he said after a while. “The way I hoped it would.”
“Or any of the other nights. Maybe we should take the hint.”
“Life, fate, whatever. The roll of the dice.”
His voice softened and the pauses grew longer between his thoughts. “I don’t believe in that. My fault mostly. Follow-through. I don’t always have it. You’re alive, more alive, or I am, whenever I’m around you. I don’t know.”
The images flashed though her again, the terror of the fall, and yet it was nothing but a phantom. She was safe, she was home. It was important to tell herself that, to draw the line between real and imaginary, especially now. Some of the fear tonight was real, but this wasn’t. “I had a nightmare just now.”
Ike shifted. She wasn’t sure why she was telling him, but she had his attention.
“I was way up on one of those tall buildings with just the girders? You were there. You had a bomb in your hands that said Bomb on it, like the kind Wylie Coyote would have. I didn’t have any shoes and the beam was cold. You dared me to walk out on one of them, it was way up in the air. I saw the rivers and the stadium, PNC Park, all the yellow seats…”
He nodded, his brow furrowed in listening.
“You pushed me off.”
The arm slung over her back pulled her closer. “Trust me. I would never let you fall.”
She struggled against him, and he gave her space to move, to lift her chin on her hand. In the dark, she made out the blue of his eyes, his pale eyebrows more visible than in stronger light. And then she couldn’t stand to look at him anymore.
It wasn’t once and done as she had thought in her anger all those years ago, when the pages she wrote on still had blue stars or silver glued to them, when she had decided. You can’t trust anyone. Why was it any different now?
A tremor passed through her. “You scare the shit out of me, you know that?”
“Because of follow-through?” He was so relaxed, his voice little more than air.
“No, it’s because…” but words failed her. Her go-to excuse was her fucked up childhood and everything that came from it, but as that shrink once told her, you’ve got to get past it or you’ll be stuck in that room forever. Her coach had more useful advice: use it if you got it, burn the fuel to get what you want. Great strategy in a match but not everything was a fight, as it turned out. The fact is, people will fail you, and even that isn’t a problem if you refuse to give a shit.
And then the words were there.
“The trouble, Duckie, is liking you.”
But Ike didn’t hear her. His breathing was smooth and deep; he was asleep.
Need to read what came before? Find it here. Or go onto the next chapter.