Chapter Sixty-one: The Prices of Passion
At a quarter to five, Philli called to tell Gloria to go ahead and put the leftovers away (which Gloria had already done) because she was going out with friends again. "I'll be back before midnight," she said, and Gloria could hear the grin toning her mother's voice.
"Wow, Mom, you've become a regular party animal," Gloria replied, trying not to sound annoyed.
"I have, haven't I?" Philli laughed. "Honestly, I'm having so much fun I feel like I'm ten years younger. See you later, Glory."
"What did she call about?" asked Ben, who had been watching Gloria as she answered the phone.
"She's not coming home until late. Having a good time. Feeling young at heart. And no, she didn't say where she was going, or who the friends were."
He shook his head, looking down at the floor. "I don't know about this ... but maybe she's starting to get over her grief at Dad's dying. Most of last summer she just moped around the house if she wasn't at work, watched old movies, and took a lot of naps."
"We all did. Of course, Will had Chelsea hanging all over him, so he at least had a distraction. And you know, I did go out with my friends -- I had to get away from the sadness sometimes, and hanging around the clubs down town was like a break for me. So I think on some level, you've got the answer there."
"Yeah, and maybe I'm still missing him so much because I don't have a social life to speak of. Is there some kind of tech manual I can read on how to get one?"
"You'll be sixteen in two weeks. Once your classmates realize that you might be a ride, you'll start finding company." This is the first time Ben's actually talked about his grief. I've been so wrapped up in my own little life that I didn't think to ask how he was coping. Damn, I'm a jackass.
"Right, Sis," he said sarcastically. "That's the kind of friends I'd want, who see me as a natural resource to exploit."
"It's the capitalist way, I learned that in my Modern History class. What kind of friends do you want?"
"Friends-friends. People who like me, who I like back. Who don't roll their eyes when I talk about business or computers. I don't know, but I think I can see what you're getting at. I won't find friends until I know what I'd like in a person, and I also won't find them by sitting on my ass in my room reading while eBay jibbers in the background."
"You're loaded with answers today. That should bode well for your computer appointment this evening."
He grabbed his jacket from the hall closet. "This one's an easy one, just time consuming. I've got my computer, my notebook, my key. You and Steve lucked out with an empty house tonight. Like I said, I'll call when I'm on my way home. See ya." Ben picked up his laptop case and went out the door.
Yes, we certainly lucked out. It's like Fate intervened and made sure we're going to be all alone together, with both of us all of a sudden realizing how much we want to be alone together. She looked around the kitchen and living room to make sure everything was tidy. The turkey had made the house smell delicious; there was only one light on in the living room. Wish I had splurged on some firewood for the fireplace. Her bedroom was neat, her bathroom spotless. My god, I'm actually planning a seduction.
How exactly would that work? Would she pounce on him as he came in the front door and kiss him senseless, or should she pretend to be calm and sit with him on the couch, hold hands with him until they were both at a passionate frenzy? And then, how to get from the couch or the front door to her room? She walked back the hallway, shutting doors. One didn't want to be sidetracked by the laundry stacked in the laundry room, or Ben's room, or her mother's room ...
Laundry. Everything was up to date, there was nothing in any of the hampers. But there would be by morning, wouldn't there? As a virgin, she might bleed a little -- but how much? She could not recall any information or advice on the matter from her high school health class days. The only commentary she'd heard on the subject had come from a whispered gossip session with a bunch of her cronies in her junior year, in which one girl had -- in a triumphant sort of way -- told that her mother had found blood on her sheets the day after she'd sneaked her boyfriend into the house and immediately taken her to the doctor and got her on birth control pills.
Well, she'd just have to get up early, wash the stain out in cold water in her bathroom, and then run a load. Before work. After Ben went to school. Before her mother was up to ask why Gloria was running a single sheet through the washer and dryer. I can say I got my period a few days early.
A lie she'd repeat to Ben if he came home from school and checked to see if there was laundry to be washed or folded, because she could not run the washer and the dryer until done between the time he went to school and the time she had to be at work.
But why should she lie about something she wanted so much? She could just be up front about it -- after all, Ben seemed to think it was a foregone conclusion. Did her brother even know whether or not she'd ever had sex? Or care?
I certainly cared when that damn Chelsea was whining for Will to be engaged to her. If she'd been pregnant, we'd have lost the house. Yes, she'd been furious with Will for endangering their income. '...what are you doing fucking around?' she'd asked him. And what else had she told him? Ah, yes, 'Maybe you should have kept your damn pants on instead. That's the only foolproof way of keeping your girl friend from getting pregnant.'
Would Steve be packing condoms? And if he was, what if it failed? A pregnancy would put the Meltons right back on the edge of disaster, and although she thought Steve was an honorable sort of fellow, she'd only been out with him a few times, and could not assume that he would up and marry her after a quick sexual encounter. If he wasn't the marrying sort, she'd have to pursue an ugly paternity suit, which she wasn't sure she could afford. Well, strike that. She knew she couldn't afford it, and damned if she was going to ask her mother to take out a loan to bring suit against someone her daughter seduced because he was a terrific kisser. And she'd lose time from her job if she got pregnant, if not lose the job itself. Maria certainly wouldn't have a lot of patience with an assistant who was boinking a fellow staff member -- that wasn't Maria's style at all.
Of course, in the unlikely even that she got pregnant, she could have an abortion. But what if the fetus would have grown up to look like her? Or Steve? Or its grandfather? Could I obliterate that possibility once it was the least bit possible? No. Not an option. Not even a last-ditch resort.
You're worrying too much about things that might never happen. Gloria tried to shake off the train of thought, but the sexy anticipation was gone, like a bright colored summer bird winging away through the trees.
The doorbell rang. A quarter to six -- most likely Steve, and she was about to find out if Steve was interested in her as a person, or if he would take off and find some sexual gratification elsewhere. It would be nice to be loved for just being Gloria, but she couldn't blame a handsome, affable fellow for deciding to seek a more satisfying woman's bed.
"I brought some more of that great wine," he said as she opened the door.
Gloria put her arms around him, leaned her head on his shoulder, squeezed him gently, wanting to hold him for at least a few hours, wishing she was a woman of leisure, able to choose to do whatever she wanted. She felt his breath catch, and his arms encircle her, too.
But there was nothing of the urgency of the afternoon. He kissed her hairline, and whispered, "Is this a bad time? Shit, I was supposed to call you and ask about your mother ..."
"No, that's not it, she hasn't been home. I ... I ... I think we should talk."
He stiffened. "Okay, although that sounds like trouble to me."
"Maybe," she said honestly. "I don't know if it is or not. I don't want it to be."
"If you don't want trouble, we won't have trouble."
"Okay. Let's put the wine inside, let me get my car keys, and we'll go over to the supermarket and get some firewood for the fireplace. I could use some soothing flamery." She released him, went inside. She shrugged her coat on, snagged her purse from its usual spot beside the door. "I take it from the lack of car that you used a taxi again."
"Yes. People are driving absolutely nuts out there; between the fog and the Christmas season, you'd swear every third woman in an SUV is out to kill."
"I'd take offense at that, except that I agree. All I have to see is a Yukon logo -- or a Tahoe -- and I slow down and give it a wide berth."
After inching their way to and from the closest supermarket, they returned with two bundles of wood, some firestarter, and a bag of navel oranges, driving with the windows down, making sure no one was crossing streets ahead of them or running stop signs. Steve tried to sound cheerful and upbeat, but he knew Gloria was tense. "I can slice up a couple of these oranges," he said as they re-entered the house.
"Okay. Shall I cut some turkey for a sandwich for you, or would you rather I reheat a whole plate of dressing and potatoes and turkey?"
"Both sound good, but I think a sandwich by the fire would be best. Should I start a fire?"
"Yes, please." She tossed him some matches from the kitchen cabinet. "Lordy, it was soupy out there."
"No lie, and the weathermen say we're in for it for probably a week."
Talk about the weather, and food, and we're okay for a few minutes at least. "And cold, too," Gloria said. "My car's thermometer said it was only 38 degrees." She handed him a plate with a sandwich, put the dish with the sliced oranges down on the raised hearth. "I'll pour some wine."
"Sounds good. Another fine turkey, by the way. Uh, I'm kind of surprised Ben isn't around ..."
She sat down on the carpet, put the glasses of wine on the hearth, too. "He's got a computer job going this evening, won't be back until after eight. Lolo pulled a late shift when some chick was a no-show, and my mom is out running with friends, said she'd be home before midnight."
He looked at her quizzically.
"It means we're completely alone tonight."
Steve watched the fire, chewing his sandwich. "Well, hell," he said, after he'd swallowed. "I was expecting us to bang all night."
Gloria jumped and gasped.
He clapped a hand over his mouth and stifled laughter. "Sorry, I couldn't resist. Sometimes I can't read anything about you, but other times -- like this evening -- you're almost a billboard. You want to know if I'm going to insist on having sex, and if I did insist, you'd kick me out the door so damn fast I'd set the leaves in the front yard on fire."
Her face burned with embarrassment at having been so obvious. "I wouldn't have kicked you. We keep a baseball bat near the door." She drank a little of her wine. "I just ... didn't know what you expected, what you expect now ... and after the way we felt this afternoon ..."
"I'm going to be honest, Gloria. If I showed up tonight and you ... wanted to make love until we both went blind, I wouldn't have argued with you. You're intelligent and gorgeous, and kissing you is as intense a feeling as I've ever had. But ... I think now that not getting that intimate is the better idea, primarily because you don't know me well enough to trust me."
"That sounds worse than what I got to thinking. It's not a matter of trust -- I want to trust you, want to get to know you better, and want to -- dammit, I just can't afford risking a pregnancy, literally can't afford it. Will and I went round on that very subject not so long ago concerning his girlfriend. It's not a matter of desire, it's simple goddamn economics. I currently have no health insurance at all."
"Take it easy," Steve said, gently patting her arm. "We're fine."
"Right. We don't even have one damn day off together to go to the Fresno Zoo, or to San Francisco, how the hell are we supposed to get to know each other?"
"One evening at a time," he said evenly. "I get off at five, you at seven. We're young, we can stay up late, neither of us has to be at work at shit o'clock. Now hitch yourself over here close to me and feed me my sandwich."
"I am not feeding you a sandwich," Gloria said, folding her arms.
"There you go, all you have to do is set boundaries."