It was funny, I thought, as we paid the bill and left the restaurant. Crank was … different. Easy to be around, and he made me laugh. But I was never going to see him after tonight, and that made me kind of sad. For a brief second, I thought of seeing him when we got back to Boston, but seriously? Bad idea. My life didn’t have room for someone like Crank. And from what he’d said, his didn’t have room either. This was all a little off-key, out of place, almost as if it was someone else out to dinner with him, and I was playing a role. I almost never go out with guys. And I never let my emotions get ahead of my brain.
But tonight, as we tried to wave down a cab to head toward Georgetown, I was feeling a little out of control. The way his shirt gathered around his arms, the easy strength in them, the easy grin … I was attracted to him in a way I hadn’t been with anyone in a long time.
I’ve never liked feeling out of control. Not like that. I’d gone there once, head over heels in love, and it did so much damage to my life I didn’t think I’d ever recover. No way I’d ever go there again. Whatever else happened, I was in control of my life. No one else. Certainly not some formless emotion and lust that can take away who you even are. I was fourteen when it happened, almost eight years ago, and the consequences and damage were beyond anything I could have conceived. What I learned was this: letting myself be at the mercy of hormones and brain chemicals and emotions can be deadly.
A cab pulled up, and we got in. I thought of tossing away caution and telling him I wanted to go home with him. One night wouldn’t be so dangerous. One night could be okay. One night could be free and fun and not go anywhere.
The cab driver took a hard right turn, accelerating to get through the light before it changed, and in the process I was pushed across the back seat toward Crank. He put his arm around me, an automatic reaction I’m sure, but I stayed there.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Fine!” I said. “Where are we going, anyway?”
“No idea. Aren’t there a bunch of clubs in Georgetown?”
“I think so. I didn’t get out much when I lived in the area.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Why not? Don’t take offense, but you seem like you were probably one of the popular girls.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong. What makes you think that?” I asked, giving him a challenging stare.
“First impressions, I guess. You still look very professional in that outfit, kind of preppy. Sexy as hell.”
I’m not a blushy sort of girl, but that made me blush. “It’s not exactly club attire, is it? But I don’t want to take the time to go back and change.”
“No worries, Julia. It’s just us, anyway.”
I swallowed and then leaned against him. What had gotten into me?
Lust. That was the only explanation. I could feel the hard muscle of his shoulders and thighs pressing against me, and my body was responding to that—no matter what my mind said.
The cab came to a halt, and the driver muttered something. I leaned forward. Nothing but red taillights ahead of us for blocks.
“What’s going on?” Crank asked.
“Construction,” the driver said. “Bad. You want me to let you out here?” He looked anxious to dump us out of the cab as soon as possible, to avoid being stuck in the westbound traffic.
I took a breath. My chest was tight, my whole body tense. I rubbed my hands on my skirt, closed my eyes and thought, Screw it. I can do this. It’s just one night, anyway.
“Do you want to…” he asked, just as I started to say, “Let’s …”
We both stopped, and he laughed.
“You go first,” he said.
I bit my lip, and I could feel my cheeks heating up again. “I was going to say …” and my voice trailed off.
“You were going to say?”
He grinned. It was a crooked grin, the left side of his mouth slightly higher than the right, and it made me want to melt into my seat and pull him right after me.
I took a breath and closed my eyes. “I was going to say, where are you staying?”
I kept my eyes closed another fifteen seconds or more. And, let me tell you, fifteen seconds is a long, long time. Finally I opened them, and he was looking at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. For someone who was always joking, always making snide remarks, he looked serious. Too serious. More serious than I was comfortable with. I didn’t need serious in my life.
I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, then he said, “I’m at some dump in Arlington. Sharing a room with Mark.”
“Oh,” I said, my voice unnaturally tense.
“What about you?” he asked. He spoke very slowly, carefully.
“Um … my parents have a condo in Bethesda. I was planning on heading back there tonight.”
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” he said.
I couldn’t get control of my breathing. I felt lightheaded. Out of control. “Come back to my place.”
He titled his head, leaned close and whispered, “Are you sure?”
I found myself chewing on my lower lip again. “Yes.”
I dropped my eyes and leaned forward, putting my hand on the back of the taxi driver’s seat. “Can you take us to Bethesda instead? Wisconsin Avenue and Montgomery.”
Suddenly it was quiet in the cab. Tense, awkward. I couldn’t believe I’d done this. I did not do one-night stands. But here I was, half-hyperventilating, with this guy I’d only known for eight hours sitting beside me in the cab. And I guess if it was just for now that was fine, but what if he wanted to see me again? What if he wanted to date? What if?
I didn’t think I could handle that.
This was so stupid. Things were so much easier with Willard, before I broke up with him. I was always in control. There was no passion there, true. There wasn’t anything there. But it was comfortable. Easy. I wasn’t afraid.
Crank, though: he made me afraid.
The cab cleared the traffic and turned up at Massachusetts Avenue, and we were speeding out of downtown DC.
“You’re awfully quiet now,” Crank said.
I looked at him, and his eyes were boring into mine, intense, probing.
“Having second thoughts?” he asked. “It’s okay.”
I leaned a little closer. “No. Just … it’s just tonight. We don’t see each other again. We don’t call each other in Boston. We don’t … anything. Okay? We enjoy each other’s company tonight, and then we’re done.”
He stared at me, surprised. And … his face looked disappointed. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing once in his throat. “I don’t know why, but that’s … not what I expected.”
“Don’t get expectations. Not with me.”
He shook his head. “Usually I’m the one who says things like that.”
The cab came to a halt, and he paid it, and we were out on the street. A cool wind blew through the streets of downtown Bethesda, and traffic rolled by us. I took his hand and walked to the entrance of the high rise, swiped my access card to unlock the front door, and we walked into the lobby.
The night concierge was sitting at the counter, watching a small television. She looked up briefly, gave us a casual wave and went back to her show. Good. If it had been the day concierge, my appearance with Crank would have been reported back to my parents by morning.
We waited in silence for the elevator. The bell when it arrived on the ground floor was loud.
“Nice place,” he said. “Fancy.”
“My parents bought it a few years back when we were living in the area.” I didn’t want to talk about the year I’d lived with my parents here. I didn’t want to think about it. If there’d been any other place I could have taken him, I would have. I didn’t like having this crazy, free moment mixed with my past.
We stepped into the elevator. It rose, quickly, to the top floor. He followed me down the hall, and we stopped at the door while I fumbled for keys. I was shaking with anxiety, nervousness. The weight of this place made me want to scream. But not enough to push him away.
I unlocked the door and opened it, then started to step in. My heart was thumping in my chest, and my throat was tight. Not just because of him. Because of this place. I had no good memories here. Even with the lights still out, looking inside this condo, which I’d stepped foot in only a few times since the day I graduated high school, shook me to the core and made my skin crawl.
I shuddered and then turned back toward him when he didn’t come inside. He gave me a speculative, questioning look. As if he were curious about me, about who I was.
But that wasn’t any of his business.
“What?” I asked.
“You don’t want to see me again,” he said.
I did. But I shook my head no.
“You don’t sleep with guys unless you’re serious with them,” he said.
“I don’t have room for serious in my life.”
He stepped close and brushed my lips with his, then spoke in a low tone. “I want you to be serious about me,” he said. “I can get a girl to sleep with me any time. But there’s something different about you.”
I stared into his eyes. He meant what he was saying. We’d only known each other for a few hours, but I felt a connection too, even if it was only lust. I wanted him. Right now. I felt my breath speed up as I started to speak, “I …”
“Julia,” he interrupted. “I’d love to get to know you better,” he said. “But I’m not going to sleep with you. Good night.”
Then, unbelievably, he leaned forward and kissed me again. Slow. Our tongues just made contact. Wet and warm. Hungry. I wanted to whimper, pull him inside, but he turned and slowly walked back down the hall until he was out of sight.
I just stood there and watched him go, and part of me, a huge part of me, wanted to run after him. But I still remembered.
I remembered what it was like to have a hot, sexy, charismatic guy want me. I remembered what it was like to lose control, to feel that rush of emotion. To be overwhelmed.
I remembered what it was like to have my heart torn out, to have my dreams smashed, to be bleeding and lost in the back streets of Beijing. To have scandal nearly tear my family apart.
No matter how much I might have wanted this guy: I couldn’t go back there. Not now. Not ever. If it wasn’t going to happen for just tonight, it wasn’t going to happen at all.
So, I walked in the condo and closed and locked the door. I didn’t turn on the lights. I didn’t want to see the inside of this place. Instead, I made my way to the couch and lay down, alone.
I didn’t cry. Not here. Never again.
(1) E-book copy of A Song for Julia
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Charles Sheehan-Miles has been a soldier, computer programmer, short-order cook and non-profit executive. He is the author of several books, including the indie bestsellers Just Remember to Breathe and Republic: A Novel of America's Future.
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