There comes a time when enough... just gives you a headache.
“Would you look at this, please? How am I supposed get two loads of laundry done before I meet Amy for dinner?”
James was bitching again. It was pretty normal, actually. Just like the way he liked sneaking his boss’s first name into conversation ever since she’d said he could call her Amy.
To appease him, I forced myself towards the small-laundry area in the apartment and looked over the two half-loads waiting to be started.
“And this is bullshit!” he muttered, assaulting neatly combed auburn hair with agitated fingers as he waved two socks at me. One short black, one long white. “Are you seeing this?”
No. I wasn’t.
Leaning forward I grabbed the ends of both socks and brought them to my nose, getting a good sniff. “They’re clean,” I said, not understanding the problem.
“Christ! You can be such an idiot. They’re all I have clean!” James snapped. How is she supposed to take me seriously enough to promote me if I show up to dinner with mismatched socks?”
“I thought you were going to wear pants.”
“That’s not the point, damn it!”
I never seemed to get the point according to him, but at the moment I had the understanding that he’d expected me to do two loads of his laundry and I’d disappointed by showing up only thirty minutes ago, ten minutes before he had.
I followed as he stormed past me towards the kitchen. “And are you smelling that? How come the dishes never get done? You know, I could really use your help around here.”
Actually, there were only two bowls and one plate. The plate I assumed was from his dinner last night, the first bowl from the ice cream he’d eaten afterwards and the one with cereal crusted to the side looked like breakfast to me. The one glass I’d used for milk when I’d first arrived had already been rinsed out and loaded in the dishwasher.
And have I mentioned that I don’t even live here?
I just visit. Come visit, Taylor. Do my laundry, Taylor. Hey, Taylor, on your way out can you take the trash with you? The dumpster’s only on the other side of the parking lot.
The sad part is, after seven months and two days of bending over backwards just to get him to say he appreciates me, he still hadn’t said it. The only thing with James I looked forward to anymore was the sex, and we hadn’t had that in over two months.
Now I could see he’d only called me today and asked me to stop by because he thought his chores would be done by the time he came home. I’d skipped work for this and now from the bedroom he was.... growling. He did that sometimes, just to make sure I knew he was really annoyed with me.
“Are you at least going to come help me make the bed?” he called.
I hadn’t even slept in it last night.
Leaning against the kitchen counter I flipped open my phone and speed-dialed Bree, who had recently taken the place of my best friend, Trina, who’d ditched me to, and I quote, “make something of herself.” It was still unclear how she planned to do that in B.F. Wyoming. Not that Bree was any kind of runner-up. She’d once told me I’d learn to love her to death, and it really hadn’t taken much effort.
Still stuck at home with her mom as she trudged through high school, she answered the phone as if she hoped it was someone ready to rescue her from her bleak existence.
“It’s me,” I said. “I’m going to need a cuddle.”
“Uh-oh. James?” she guessed.
“Seriously,” I said; “am I completely brain-dead, staying with him this long?”
“Umm... Jude said you were. I just love you.”
I smiled. Jude, Trina’s cousin, was also a loyal friend, if you didn’t count that he was dating Bree’s brother, Quinn, who I had a huge crush on. I still say I saw him first. The first time Jude met James he’d flat told me that any form of a relationship with him was a mistake, and he planned on saying I told you so as soon as shit blew up in my face. “Why do you think I didn’t call Jude first?”
“Good point,” Bree agreed. “So what is it this time?”
“Everything,” I said. “I’m walking out of James’s apartment right now, and I’m leaving the key.”
“Seriously?” She had every right to be surprised. There had been false alarms before. But not today, I decided as I dropped the key--the one he’d given me exactly one month and two days ago--next to the picture of himself he kept on the kitchen island and headed for the door.
“I’m done,” I told her.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. Oh, wait...”
I doubled back.
“What do you mean, wait?” she demanded. “You walk out that door. I’ll meet you at your place.”
“Okay, but first...”
“No, no. You’ll change your mind on me.”
I opened James’s refrigerator. “I’ll get out of here,” I promised. “Just as soon as I grab the milk.”
“Yeah. I bought it.”
“In that case, get the milk and get out,” Bree said.
I lifted the gallon jug I’d brought over the day before when I’d noticed his was going bad. But, before I headed to the door again I went to his trash can and lifted the lid. Just as I’d suspected, with no one to take the garbage out for him the old gallon was still inside, and I made a point to return it to his fridge. Then, I left.
Friends are like toothpaste
Sometimes I had to wonder what provoked me to take so much abuse. The fact that he had silky auburn hair, a dimpled, charming smile, green eyes and a long, toned body had once seemed like a good enough reason. I can be petty like that. But that night as I leaned against Bree on my fold-out bed in the back room of the house I shared with my sister, Audra, listing off any and all of James’s offenses I could think of, I saw our relationship for what it was: He was the mad scientist, and I’d been neutered.
It had started post-Quinn, as I liked to call it. It was the end of the year at school, and he and Jude were settling into their relationship nicely, while I was left completely jealous. Poor me, right? Not really. I like to paint Jude the villain, but really he hadn’t taken anything from me, because I’d never had it to begin with. It boiled down to two things when it came to Quinn. The first was, I would have had no patience for him. He’d been a serious closet case. The second was... I would have had no patience for him. However, Jude respected him and even cared about all his whining. But even knowing that Quinn and I weren’t to be, their relationship got to me.
Jealousy. I knew it had reached the red zone when I even got jealous of their fights. Most of the time I’d comment on anything I could to provoke one just to watch it play out. Sometimes I’d be in the backseat of the car, Jude driving, Quinn in the passenger seat. They’d be deep into the middle of giving each other the silent treatment for one thing or another.
It was beautiful.
It was the way Quinn would put his sunglasses on so that Jude couldn’t tell he was stealing glances, and the way that Jude bit at his lip to keep himself from apologizing for something he didn’t think he should have to apologize for. But then we’d be halfway to where we were going--probably to drop me off somewhere because I’d started all of this--and Jude would reach over, rest his hand palm-up on Quinn’s thigh. Casual. A silent invitation. And Quinn would stare at Jude’s fingers, waiting for that slight wiggle of the index finger that would always occur, and he’d very carefully tuck his hand into Jude’s, and all would be well in the world.
I wanted something like that... that wasn’t so... hollow.
I turned eighteen before everyone else I knew, meaning I got to go explore the clubs on my own. At first it was fun as I met new people and got to know new faces, along with a few new bodies. Jude would give me hell when I’d let myself into his apartment early in the morning so I could sleep off my late nights before I went home to Audra, who considered herself my mother. But then I met James, and I had another place to spend my mornings.
At first it had started casual. I was okay with that. But the smile I got when he saw me, the kisses he stole when we were dancing, and the way he called me “baby” had me missing him when he wasn’t around. But then six short weeks into our budding relationship, he decided to introduce me to his friends. I’d thought nothing of it at the time when he asked me to remove my facial piercings before we met them for lunch. But thinking on it now... I never did pick up my jewelry again.
And as Bree ran her fingers through my three-inches-long, neatly cut, boring brownish hair...
“I can’t believe I did that,” I said.
“Eww. Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts about James,” she said, ceasing to pet my head as she narrowed her eyes at me.
“No,” I said quickly. “It’s my hair. I let him tell me how to cut my hair.”
Actually, he’d taken me into the barber and told the barber how to do it. And of course the Orange-Frost coloring I had in it had to go, too.
“You let him tell you how to do a lot of things,” Bree remarked. “That’s why I’m on Taylor-duty until I’m sure you’re over him.”
“Taylor-duty?” I repeated.
“Uh-huh. If you’re not good by this weekend I’m gonna have to pass you on to Quinn and Jude. I work on Saturday.”
“Sounds fair,” I said, cracking a smile at her that I really didn’t feel. “But we should dye my hair. That way, even if I do go crawling back, James won’t want me anyway.”
“He always was a dumb-ass,” Bree said to that. “I can say that now, can’t I?”
“Anything you want.”
Besides, it’s not like James hadn’t made his fair share of comments about my friends. At twenty, he was older, and I was still finishing high school. I’d be graduating early and only took a few classes a day, but I think that had always bothered him. So my friends bothered him. We rarely spent time with anyone but his own friends, and to be honest, I don’t think they liked me any more than my friends liked James.
I guess that should have been my first clue.
If you’re not cool with Bree, you’re not cool with me. I’d make that my new motto, I decided as I smiled at her. My friends would come first from now on. That should keep me in line. Those were the people I needed in my life, not some high-maintenance hotty who put knots in my stomach every time I thought I’d done something to upset him.
Okay. Just because I needed them in my life didn’t mean I wanted them in my life... all the time. There’s a line, you know. Everyone needs their alone-time every now and then. And so what if mine included five days of refusing to get out of bed as I ignored calls and told everyone who came to my door to go away?
I think the depression might have hit around the time Bree had gone home after my breakup and I decided to check my messages. There were three from James. The first was almost funny because he’d assumed I’d only run out for something at an inconvenient time, emphasizing on how I didn’t are about anyone but myself. How dare me.
The next two weren’t so kind; both demanded I call him back. When I realized I wasn’t going to, I felt sad and relieved all at the same time. Even though Bree had been there only ten minutes before, I felt alone, and part of me felt like maybe I needed to be.
I’ll admit I took this to the extreme.
I loved my sister. I really did. Audra was seven years older than me at twenty-five. She was only eighteen when our parents died, and she’d made sure we stayed together. That was cool. So now that I was able I did my best to help her keep up on repairs around the house, keep food on the table and the lawn mowed. I was so good at these things, actually, she tended to notice when they weren’t getting done, which led her to kicking in my door early on a Tuesday morning.
“It stinks in here,” she informed me, her tall, thin figure in my doorway. We’d both inherited our lankiness from our parents, only Audra inherited Grandma’s jet-black hair. She liked to keep it tied tight at the back of her head, and she looked way more serious than she really was in the black skirt she wore to work and her reading glasses.
I pulled the blankets over my head to block out the little light she’d let in. “That’s probably because I haven’t showered in a few days.”
“Yeah,” Audra replied. “I thought as much. Look, I’m going to work. Maybe we can have dinner later. Good luck today, Taylor.”
I yawned, but then slowly peeked out of the covers to look in her direction, one eye open and the other half closed. “Hey! What do you mean, good luck?” Was I forgetting something?
Audra peeked her head back around the corner, her smile a little too mischievous for my taste. “I called Jude,” she told me, and was out of sight before I could sit up and receive a five gallon bucket of cold water down my back.
My feet hitting my mattress I turned, still bouncing on my not-very-bouncy bed, to glare at the perpetrator. Jude had managed to sneak up on me, and still holding the bucket, his lip was turned up into a smirk, his one dimple showing while his blue eyes laughed at me from behind perfectly straight blond bangs.
“Jackass,” I hissed as I stood there in my sagging boxers, a puddle at where my feet sunk into the mattress. “And on my bed...”
“It needed to be cleaned as much as you do,” he remarked, and then suddenly dropped the bucket to grab my elbow. “Come on.”
I allowed him to pull me from the bed, even place his hands on my bare back and push me towards the hall. At one point I made a point to lean back on him and wiggle my butt. “Ooo, Jude. Do you get to manhandle Quinn like this? I’ll bet he’s a screamer.”
He slapped my ass and then laughed when I jumped. “That, was from Quinn,” he informed me. “He personally asked me to beat your ass.”
We’d reached the bathroom. It was no surprise that the shower was already running. Once he pushed me past the door, I turned to face him.
“I suppose he didn’t mean you were supposed to do something pleasant with my ass?”
That smirk again, and then he pushed me back further and closed the door on me, but his voice was loud and clear on the other side of it.
“You’re going back to school. You’re going back to work, and tonight you’re sitting at the table and eating dinner with your sister.”
Jude wasn’t that much of a hardass. He took me out to a late breakfast and pleasantly brought up just about everything but James. I knew he was dying to tell me he’d been right about my ex all along, but he was too good a friend to do so before I was ready for it. He did, however, make me pick up the phone and make the calls I needed to in order to return to work, which I’d been playing hooky from under the pretense of being sick.
By the time we made it to the school where he and his El Camino made the freshmen gush, I’d missed my first class and lunch had started. Deciding I should probably see my teachers for missed work, I headed one way while Jude, who had received his diploma outside of school went to drop in on Quinn.
I made my second class, and even study hall where I managed to catch up on at least two days of work before the bell rang. I might have thought about going home but leave it to Jude to make sure the exits were blocked. He picked me up outside the classroom door, claiming Quinn had to work and he had nothing better to do, so he’d be coming to work with me.
I guess that was supposed to be one of the perks about working for yourself. Your friends could tag along and you didn’t have to pay them. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to afford Jude, anyway. Dog walking didn’t pay much.
About a month after I met James, my sister’s boss had paid me to check in on and walk his dogs for two weeks while he was out of town. They became regular customers of mine, and when his neighbor called things kind of took off from there. I was up to twenty-three four-legged clients. Audra had even made me business cards.
Apart from the last five days, I generally worked part-time at least seven days a week. The area I worked in conveniently had a seven-mile stretch of dog park with plenty of loose tennis balls and hiking trails. Generally I liked to take four to five dogs at a time, but not when I was walking Goliath and Aphrodite, two headstrong, young Akitas that had owners who loved them, but didn’t necessarily have the energy for them. I usually took them up some of the steeper trails long before I let them off leash to play in fenced areas especially designed for dogs that tended to bolt on their owners.
As Jude and I played with them until we were covered in slobber it occurred to me how much I’d missed these two particular dogs, and not just over the last week. They were big, but they liked hugs and kisses as much as anyone, and it wouldn’t be unusual to go home covered in hair after spending time with them. I’d learned early on that James didn’t like it. He could spot the smallest fragment of dog hair from across the room. Sometimes he’d even claim I tracked it in on my shoes. I started to make sure I was showered and changed before I went to see him after work, but if my hair wasn’t still wet he’d ask me to do it again. I’d started to feel self-conscious around the dogs, and I’d been careful about letting them jump or rub on me.
Thinking about it must have caused some sort of melancholy in my expression, because for the first time that day, Jude mentioned James.
“Hey, Taylor. Fuck’im,” he’d said.
I smiled because that was all that was necessary. “Wanna go boy-watching?” I asked as I hooked Goliath and Aphrodite back up to their leashes, now that they were well worn out.
“That depends,” Jude said. “Are you gonna tell Quinn all about it this time?”
“Oh, relax,” I insisted. “He won’t get mad unless he wants me to tell you about the naked neighbor across from you that he’s been spying on.”
Sometimes my friends didn’t know if I was being serious or not. I liked things that way. And for the record, neither Jude or Quinn ever turned down boy-watching. The only difference was, Quinn refused to do it in public and liked to make offended faces at all my comments while Jude tended to be more relaxed about everything and liked to join in. Jude was definitely far better at participating in one of my favorite hobbies, and the dog park was a good place for it. Though, he did seem to go above and beyond to point out the cute ones that afternoon. My guess is he just wanted my mind off of James. His methods worked.
I ended up doing a lot of laughing. We both did as we compared, ranked and discussed what kind of boyfriends random guys would make, and when Bree called me to talk we decided it wouldn’t hurt to start sending her picture mail.
By the time the dogs were completely worn out, their walk had run almost forty minutes over--their owners wouldn’t complain--and I felt completely content and at peace as we sat on a bench and all four of us took a water break.
A glance towards Jude and I caught him checking his watch. I smiled. “Hey,” I said. “Thanks for today, but you don’t have to babysit me all the way home. I’m alright.”
“That’s okay,” he insisted. “I’ll give you a ride.”
“By the time I get these two home,” I said, “Audra can pick me up after she gets off work.”
Jude seemed to consider my suggestion for a few moments, probably wondering if it was a good idea to leave me alone for any amount of time. Personally, I would have liked for him to stay, but I could see it in his face that he was beginning to wonder what Quinn was up to. I smiled wider to reassure him.
“Go,” I insisted.
“Alright,” he said slowly. “But I’m calling tonight.”
“I promise I’ll answer,”
He seemed satisfied enough by that and I watched him disappear behind the trees and bushes that made up the trail before I leaned back on the bench and sighed.
Honestly, I didn’t mean to become a downer the moment I was left unsupervised. I think this time it was just the thought of Jude getting to go home with someone, while I...
But there was nothing to be upset about, I told myself. It’s not like I enjoyed going to James’ anyway. I mean, thinking about going to him, wondering what he was doing while I wasn’t there... that was all a part of it. But I think most of the time once I was with him I was wishing I’d put it off a little longer... like, until he was in a good mood.
When Goliath started tugging at his leash again I realized it was time to go, so, leaving the bench I made my way along the familiar paths that would take me back to their neighborhood. I often stepped off the trail when someone else was coming. Both of my charges tended to get a little overexcited when it came to head-on confrontations with other dogs, and their combined one-hundred-and-seventy pounds could be a lot to handle, especially now that Jude was gone and I had both leashes.
They weren’t aggressive. They just liked to put their noses where they didn’t belong once in a while, and had on more than one occasion entangled their leashes with other groups, leaving disgruntled pet owners in our wake.
I had them both off to one side and on a tight leash, so I wasn’t too worried when the jogger came around the corner. His brindle dog was off leash and in control by his side, their steps synchronized as they made their way towards us.
I suppose I first noticed him because while most people were bundled up in a few layers, his legs were bare between his black shorts and the socks that curved around his ankle, just above the top of his shoes. Toned and golden, the muscles in his legs seemed to contract with every movement as I followed them up to broad shoulders tucked beneath a long-sleeved zip-up grey hoodie.
The cool air had left a shade of pink across the bridge of his nose and the arch of his cheeks. Blond curls stuck to his glistening forehead. The broad mouth attached to a nicely defined jaw line suddenly curved upwards, a flash of white teeth showing in his smile. When his blue eyes came in my direction as he neared, it occurred to me that I was staring.
I looked over my shoulder, wondering who that smile was for, but unless it was aimed at that tree...
My head snapped back around, eyes locking on blue ones that... yes, yes, they were definitely looking at me. He passed. His dog passed. My head turned, my body turned... Goliath and Aphrodite turned.
I’d left too much slack on the leashes and very quickly the Akitas were everywhere. Aphrodite had his dog going in circles, her leash tangling with Goliath’s as their excitement escalated. And remember that thing about them occasionally putting their noses where they don’t belong? Goliath stuck his right into Mister-Sex-on-Legs’ crotch.
Horrified, I pulled the leashes back, yelling for the dogs as I forced them under control. I didn’t know if I wanted to feel relieved, or bury myself when the guy’s response started with laughter as he pulled his own animal away.
“What’re you feeding them?” he asked as he patted Goliath on the head. “They’ve got some energy.”
“Um... no idea. I just watch it come out and pick it up.”
The look he gave me was deserving of a remark like that, and once I realized how it had sounded I must have turned ten shades of red. “I’m just the dogwalker,” I said quickly, in a poor attempt to save myself.
“Oh. Alright then.”
“I’m really sorry about...”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, flashing his brilliant smile again as he lifted a stick from the ground and waved it for his dog, who went to great lengths to get to it as he led her back into a steady jog. I got a wave goodbye. “Good luck with those two.”
Despite myself, I think I stood there for a good five minutes smiling like an idiot, wondering what I could pick up to make the dog owner chase me like his dog chased him.
Three weeks after that... and I think I’m stalking you
It always amazes me where inspiration can come from. In my case, I think I needed inspiration to do a lot of things. To get out of bed. To smile. To resist the urge to call James.
It was one guy in particular who helped me with all of that over the next weeks. And I had no idea what his name was.
For the first two days all I had to do was remember him smiling at me. But then when my mental image faded I started hanging out at the dog park a lot more than usual. I tagged an extra fifteen minutes onto every client’s walk time and started looking over trails that I didn’t usually touch. Then finally, two days after I started looking, I finally came across him. The boxer he kept as a jogging companion recognized me before he did, but she only took a small sniff at the six Pomeranians at my feet before she moved on, and while I got a nod from him, he kept going. That was a little disappointing.
So I came back the next day, and the next.
Now, if I happened to know that almost every day he ran three trails and walked two, would that constitute stalking? I mean, it’s not like I followed him around every day--especially not on Saturdays because he didn’t come on Saturdays--because even if I wanted to, it’s not like I could keep up with him. I wasn’t exactly out of shape but he was all lean muscles and energy. I liked watching it, but I found that I was better off when I just happened to be on one of his trails as he was passing by.
To my delight, this way I got a smile just about every day, and those smiles held me over until I saw him again.
The end of week two is where I started running into trouble. I wanted more than a smile after he rounded the bend in the trail and left my line of vision. I wanted him to stop and talk to me again, even if he hadn’t intended to in the first place.
So for a while I made sure to have Goliath and Aphrodite with me, hoping for another mishap. No such luck. He was much too careful when it came to avoiding those two.
I did realize that going to these lengths for a few words with an attractive guy was a bit radical. But I hadn’t exactly been at my sanest lately.
When the dreams started I knew there was no coming back from the trouble I was in. I didn’t only wake up with a smile slapped on my face; I daydreamed about blue eyes, broad shoulders and a firm, round ass. I constantly felt like I wanted to reach out and touch someone. Someone in particular. Who wasn’t James.
I think I’d lost it completely by Friday of week three when I went to the dog park with no dogs. With a beanie pulled over the hair Bree had dyed black for me nearly a month ago and my jacket zipped up, I posted myself on the trail he always came up and I waited while winter flurries swirled through the air.
This was complete madness.
And yet I couldn’t have been more confident when I saw him turn the corner with his dog, their pace slowing as it always did here. Before he could see me standing there, I started off jogging, gradually moving in his direction, my head low but my eyes up, keeping him in my sights as we closed the distance between us.
Because I was dead in the middle of the trail he politely moved over with his dog, so when I got a little closer I made sure to be in his way again. For a few moments we moved left to right, left again. At five feet away his posture became unsure, his pace began to slow. The boxer put her short tail between her legs and backed up a little as I came face to face with her confused owner.
I knew the moment he recognized me because the slight annoyance across his expression turned into confusion as he jogged in place momentarily, opened his mouth to say something, and then froze when I kissed him.
It was easy, really. I’d grabbed the front of his jacket, pulled him forward and closed my mouth over his. He smelled like a pleasant mixture of deodorant and peppermint. My lips moved over his, tongue flicking his teeth. He was warm, his skin smooth.
There was growling, pressure on my shoulder as my jacket tore. It seemed the boxer wasn’t pleased with me, but I didn’t care as I stepped back with a big, stupid smile on my face, looked at the shocked look on his, and took off running like a fugitive.
It’s hard to describe the freedom I felt in the moment, consequences be damned. I’d probably have to find another park to walk in. If he happened to be seriously homophobic, maybe I’d even make the evening news. I wondered if I could get arrested for stealing kisses. A wonderful kiss that I’d desperately needed.
I ran harder, exhilarated as my phone rang and I reached for it with my now-bare left arm. “Yeah?”
“Taylor? What are you doing? You sound funny.”
“Hey, Bree. I’m running.”
I laughed out loud. “Because, I just....”
I stopped when I heard the bark behind me, glanced over my shoulder and became shocked to realize the boxer was coming, and so was her attractive owner. And they were running a lot faster than I was.
“Oh, crap. Bree, I gotta go. There’s a good chance I might get gay-bashed.”
I didn’t bother hearing what she’d had to say to that as I lowered the phone and picked up my pace, pushing myself until a cramp developed in my side, and still, he was gaining on me. And then he was next to me, reaching out, and snatching my phone from my hand.
He stopped before I did, and by the time I turned around he already appeared to be dialing numbers. His cheeks were flushed, his tongue flicking his top lip as he moved forward without taking his eyes off the phone. I took a step back in response and his dog growled at me.
“Maybe you should just keep the phone,” I said, fully intending to run before the cops showed up.
His eyes lifted to mine then, his expression unreadable as he handed the phone back. His mouth didn’t curve up in that familiar way until it was back in my hand, and without a word, he whistled for his dog and the two of them left me there feeling stunned, and if possible, a little more giddy than I’d been after I’d kissed him.
Still warm from where he’d touched it, I stared at the cell for a minute before I opened it up to discover there was a new addition to my phone book. I smiled. His name was Luke.