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Off Limits

Jenna got there first and it shouldn’t have been that way. For our entire lives she’d always been later than me but the one time I arrived after her became the day I’d regret forever, because those four minutes could have changed my entire life.

If only I’d met him first. If only I’d walked faster. If only I’d ignored the road signals and run through the static traffic and not stopped at the newsagent for chewing gum. If only, if only, if only. But I was late. And by the time I got to the bar, she and Noah were already deep in conversation, laughing like they’d known each other for years.

“Zoe!” Jenna jumped up when she saw me. “This is Noah. We just met. Noah, this is my sister, Zoe.”

“Hey,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

We looked at each other. He smiled. I smiled. He didn’t see my heart drop like it knew just how much trouble I was already in. Nobody saw. I had a perfect poker face. If I’d have been looking in the mirror, even I wouldn’t have seen. But I felt the desperation like I’d been dealt the worst hand possible. I sat down at the tiny table. Jenna and I had planned to have drinks to celebrate her new job but with Noah there, the evening changed course.

They were all over each other. I watched from behind an endless stream of mojitos. He wasn’t her type. Didn’t she see it? He didn’t look neat enough to be her type. I knew the kind of guys she dated. Groomed hair and button down shirts. Noah wore a leather jacket and a silver chain. He smelt like cigarette smoke, not Armani For Him. The swirling end of a tattoo crept out of the neckline of his t-shirt.

Jenna shouldn’t have liked him but god help me, she did. I knew it in the way she touched his arm, the way she laughed at everything he said, the way her blue eyes sparkled like her Midnight Kiss cocktail. They were so into each other. It was like watching a case study on mutual attraction and even though they engaged me in conversation, I felt like a useless third wheel on their tandem bicycle. They clicked as easily and sleekly as a seatbelt.

The evening wore on, the bar teeming with revellers. It was a hot summer night; everyone out for a good time. People were drinking, laughing, glasses clinking in the endless buzz of conversation. Noah and Jenna seemed oblivious to everything but each other, not even glancing up when a fight spilled out into the street. I drank enough to get tired of drinking. The lights were too bright, the crowds too loud. Eventually, I cracked.

“Jenna, we should really go home.” My voice sounded loud, unnecessary, the most blatant and unwelcome of interruptions.

My sister looked at me, faintly disoriented as though she’d forgotten I was there.

“Right.”

Noah shifted as she stood up.

“Well, we should do this again sometime,” he said as though he were talking to both of us.

“Of course,” Jenna gushed and they smiled and looked at each other and wouldn’t stop looking until I literally pulled her away.

We walked the two miles home the midnight sky hued with deep, indigo light.

“You’re not actually gonna see him again, are you?” I asked.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Jenna was practically skipping alongside me, the streetlights catching the sequins on her dress. “He’s such a gentleman.”

“What about Jackson?” I asked. It was a mean question and I wanted it to be. Jackson was her on/off boyfriend, and he’d become something of a vice in her life. It was cruel to bring him up but some part of me felt annoyed at her happiness. I wanted to puncture the fairy dust cloud of spun sugar she seemed to be floating on.

“Jackson? He’s dead and buried,” Jenna caught my hand, as though trying to impart some of her excitement. “Forget him. Don’t you think Noah is just fucking edible?”

I shrugged, pulling my hand away. “If you like that kind of thing.”

I walked faster but it didn’t deter her. She floated effortlessly beside me, her steps not even making a sound on the sidewalk.

“Do you think he was into me? Do you think he thought I was pretty?”

I glared at her. Her blonde hair was loose around her bare shoulders, her skirt dangerously short and her legs tanned and endless. Noah had been hanging off her every word.

Everyone thinks you’re pretty,” I said and it came out colder and more jealous than I would have liked so I laughed to cover it up but the laugh was awkward and cold too. A car raced past, guys hanging out the windows and whooping drunkenly.

“But do you think Noah thinks I’m pretty?” Jenna pressed, oblivious to their attentions.

“Of course he does. He wouldn’t stop staring at you. You’re beautiful.” I said and I was overcompensating even though she was too high for my earlier tone to have offended her. “I’m surprised you even liked him though,” I commented casually. “He had a tattoo, you know.”

“Yeah, I thought so.”

“I thought you hated tattoos. You said you’d disown me if I got one.”

“Yeah, but he kinda suits it, don’t you think?”

She tried to stop smiling but couldn’t. She was gone, and with every minute she seemed to spiral further down into his dizzying charm. There was nothing I could do. He was simply too attractive. I couldn’t drag her back. I should have been happy for her but all I felt was desperation. If I hadn’t had to see him again, it wouldn’t have mattered. But if they started dating, I’d be stuck at the sideline, hating every moment they spent together. I didn’t want it. But the whole thing was out of my control.

We got home and went into our stifling apartment and threw the windows open and cleaned our teeth and she didn’t stop talking about him until I finally escaped to my room.

Finally alone, I lay on my bed, the dark room feeling like a sauna. I thought of Noah. His voice. His eyes. His mouth looked hard, like he was constantly on guard but his smile curled in a way that warmed my entire world. I let out a long sigh, my hands curling into fists. She met him first. He wasn’t meant to be hers but what could I do?

My hand moved recklessly down under the waistband of my shorts and pressed against my snatch. Wet heat. I’d been turned on by the first word he’d said to me. Nobody had ever affected me so effortlessly before. I slid my fingertip down, pushing it against my entrance. The room felt too hot, my shorts too restrictive and I kicked them off until I was wearing only my t-shirt.

My hand felt almost soothing against my snatch. I thought of Noah and bit my lip hard enough to taste blood. I imagined kissing him, feeling his whisky-sharp tongue deep in my mouth, his hands digging into the curve of my ass. My free hand fumbled for my phone, clumsily bringing up porn videos. They took forever to load and I wondered idly how he’d fuck, the things he was into. Oral? Rough sex? Anal?

My hand moved faster, spurred on by the blurred displays of obscenity. I wanted him. I wanted him so badly it made my stomach hurt. I wanted him to be right there so I could touch him and feel him and make him feel as desperate as I did. My breath came out ragged, my t-shirt clinging to my damp body, my hand bringing me closer and closer to the edge. I dropped the phone and gripped my breast, kneading it desperately as my finger rubbed relentlessly at my clit.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I whispered the word, my perspiration-drenched body clenched in anticipation. When it finally came, the pleasure was everything. I had to push my face into the pillow to keep quiet and it went on, the orgasm beautifully draining.

*

They started dating. I told myself I could deal with it. Noah was nothing special. He was just a man. Just a man. I’d always learned to despise things I didn’t have but god help me, Noah wasn’t a thing. He was a person. A living human being and try as I might, I couldn’t stop wanting him. I’d never felt so helplessly attracted to anyone. It was the little things. The precise angle of his jaw. The ridges in his fingernails. The depth of his laugh.

He’d come over to pick Jenna up and she wouldn’t be ready but it didn’t matter because even her lateness was charming and beautiful. And Noah and I would make small talk and he’d sit on the arm of the sofa and pace up and down our tidy living room until we eventually broke onto the balcony so he could smoke. It happened every time. Jenna always took forever to get ready and I’d crave the time alone with Noah and dread it at the same time because I always laughed too hard or said something off kilter, talking too fast to filter the words.

But I could romanticise those moments. The time would last forever when we were alone together. Sitting on the balcony, legs dangling, his cigarette angling to the sky, his laugh strangling the darkness until light overflowed and made me feel like every dream I’d ever had glowed on the brink of reality. I always sweated when I talked to him and when Jenna was ready and the door clicked shut behind them, I’d lean against it and think of him so hard that my knees would feel weak and I’d reach down to touch myself until my legs gave out and I’d sink to the floor in a gasping heap of cheap pleasure.

All I knew was what I saw right in front of me. The light in his dark eyes. The way his mouth curled when he looked at me. God, how I wanted him. It felt solid almost. Sometimes I feared Jenna would see it. We did everything together and it had always been that way. Whenever one of us dated, it didn’t get between the things we did or the places we went. I went out with them sometimes, a useless and dragging third wheel but she wouldn’t have it any other way because that was just who she was

Bars and concerts. Hot summer nights. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. I watched the way their fingers tangled, the way his chin rested on the top of her head and I watched from behind oversized sunglasses as they made out. I couldn’t get over just how beautiful they looked together.

*

I dreamt of fucking him. It was inevitable. My waking mind was so occupied by thoughts of him that it only made sense for his presence to eventually invade my dreams. And god, how he invaded them. I touched him, felt the muscle in his arms, felt his mouth crush mine and his fingers push inside me until I writhed against his immovable weight.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said and the words weren’t even necessary because he looked at me with that reluctant smile and nothing made me feel more beautiful than being the cause of that smile. Our mouths clashed, his hands clawing at my skirt, fingers dragging up my legs and digging into my ass. His breath felt hot against me and his hand ground between my thighs until desperate sighs spilled from my mouth and into his.

“I’ve wanted you so long,” he said and it was wrong but the urge was too strong to purge and I let him push me down onto some soft, perfect bed and crawl on top of me. He kissed a path down my neck and my shirt had miraculously disappeared so his lips moved unhindered over my collarbones before his mouth brushed my nipple and his tongue circled it wetly. My hands were in his hair and it felt soft, so soft and warm just like I’d known it would. And then he was between my legs, his cock pushing against my snatch until he finally eased inside and nothing had ever felt so sublime.

“You feel so good,” he whispered and his voice dragged over the words like it always did, scratched and grazed with chainsmoking and it went inside me, just like his cock was inside me. He fucked hard; pushed in and out until I couldn’t keep up and then I just had to take it; had to feel the delicious way he slammed in and out until we were both sweating. He was still wearing his t-shirt and I frowned, holding out a hand to pause him.

“Why’ve you got your shirt on?” I asked. It shouldn’t have mattered but it was a dream so the stupid things mattered and bizarrely, I wanted to see his tattoo. I’d only ever seen the part on his neck and I desperately wanted to know what the rest of it was.

He sat up, his cock easing out of me as he pulled off the shirt and I stared at his chest because the tattoo was a tattoo of my sister and how could it be when he’d had it before he met her? And she looked beautiful even in the black ink; she looked like a princess, an angel, something too clean for me to ever touch with my guilt stained hands. And as I stared blankly at the tattoo, Noah stared at me, confused and impatient.

“What’s wrong?” he asked and the answer was too huge for me to give and the question echoed in my mind (what’s wrong? what’s wrong? what’s wrong?) until it was all I could hear and then I heard a crash followed by laughter and the fantasy curled away like cigarette smoke as the world came back.

“Shhh! Zoe must be asleep. Stop it!”

I sat up, disoriented and dazed, mind ablaze with the receding dream. I heard their voices as the front door clicked shut and my eyes flicked to the nightstand clock. 01:18. Early, almost. They stumbled through the flat, laughter interspersed with the occasional empty shhhh. My t-shirt was damp with sweat, my heart beating fast beneath it. They eventually made it to her room and the door slammed shut. I lay back, overflowing with guilt.

Why didn’t I meet him first? Why didn’t I get to the goddamn bar five minutes earlier? Why did he have to enter my life as nothing more than something untouchable? It was like having to stare at an enormous pile of money and never being able to lay a hand on it, let alone spend it. But I had to watch Jenna spent it and she did. Fast and reckless.

Because while time only intensified my desire for Noah, for Jenna the sparkle seemed to wear off. She was still all over him but a month in and I’d hear her on the phone with her ex-boyfriend Jackson, making calls that lasted longer than they ever did with Noah. Sometimes Jackson would even come over. She tried to hide it but I knew. I’d come home to the smell of Armani Stronger With You and she always had perfect excuses, layers of lies built up like a dam to stop the truth flooding out. She knew I knew but it didn’t stop her playing the game maybe because to pretend would avoid the inevitable confrontation.

I tolerated it because she wasn’t perfect. Nobody’s perfect. And when Noah asked me if everything was okay with my sister, I gave him her excuses because to do anything else would be to betray and how could I betray someone who’d stood by me my entire life? We always caught each other on the way down. I should have hated her for the duplicity but I could never hate her. I’d do anything for her because I knew her. I knew where she’d come from and why she did the things she did.

I was her sister. Our connection ran deep and strong and anything that got between us would be drowned in the rush. And so I didn’t let Noah get between us. I didn’t chase him. I didn’t tell her how I felt. I followed the code. Swallowed the envy and wallowed in the lonely circus of my emotions.

I felt constantly on the verge of tears. It took all my effort to hold them back. I could imagine the spilling flow killing the months of careful, clinical restraint. I couldn’t. I had to hold up, fold up the hurt and hide it deep inside. I tried. I lied. Defied every selfish impulse. What would breaking them achieve?

It took me back to every time I’d resented her. Like the time we were kids and she had a colouring book and she coloured so hard and went outside of every line and I so desperately wanted to snatch it from her because she was ruining it but I couldn’t because it was hers and I had no right to it. I just had to watch and now all I could do was watch as she took Noah and ruined everything they could have been. I’d seen her do it with other guys but I’d never really taken it to heart. They drifted in and out, unimportant and inconsequential but Noah was more. Silhouettes and cigarettes.

Selfishly, helplessly, I hoped that they’d fall apart but the summer was just the start.

Winter came, Christmas bringing listless lingering in the warm glitter of department stores. Jenna and I had always spent the holidays together, and since we were kids we’d waste hours wandering through the gaudily lit city, spending imaginary credit limits in wild fantasies. But it was different with Noah. Somehow his presence made the whole thing seem foolish and immature. Unfazed, Jenna dragged me to jewellery displays in an attempt to revive our tradition.

“Come on, Zoe!”

But everything had changed. The winter days seemed colder that year, and he’d hold her hand and I’d look at their fingers entangling and I wanted to go home and sleep until the whole nightmare was over. But maybe it wouldn’t end. I watched them lean over the case of wedding rings and my heart thudded as cold as a snowball as my mind fast forwarded the unthinkable.

Maybe he would marry her. Maybe he’d walk to the gleaming counter of that overpriced jewellery store and buy a diamond ring and propose and then they’d be together forever and surely I would be able to stop then. Why couldn’t I stop? What would I do if they spent the rest of their lives together? Could I ever switch off the emotions? I felt my eyes water and pressed my forehead hard against the cool glass screening the display before me.

Emeralds. Emerald earrings and necklaces and rings and bracelets and some Colombian and some Zambian and the Colombian ones were more expensive even though the colour wasn’t half as pretty as the Zambian. Pretty. I caught sight of Jenna in the mirror edge of the opposite display. Pretty. Everyone said we looked alike but we didn’t. Her nose was slighter, straighter, her cheekbones higher, her mouth fuller. How could anyone even look at me next to her?

I moved away, wandering aimlessly past cafes and gift stores. People held hands, discussing plans, laughing about nothing, and there was a weight to it. I felt like I could almost touch their happiness. And you couldn’t just buy it. You couldn’t walk into a store and order it and have it gift wrapped and delivered with a bow. I felt left out, in the stark, dark loneliness, condemned to be a witness and not a participant. And perhaps it was my own fault. I always found faults in the men who showed interest in me. Works too hard. Doesn’t work enough. Too distant. Too emotional.

I stopped at a bookstore and looked in the window, my breath clouding against the glass. A selection of collectors’ editions of books made up the display. IDEAL CHRISTMAS PRESENTS! the accompanying sign confidently proclaimed. The books were beautiful; hardback classics by Steinbeck, Dickens, Salinger but the price labels made me feel weak.

“Fucking hell, who’d spend that much on a book?” Noah’s voice was warm in my ear. I looked at him. He blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth, flicking ash from the tip of his cigarette. Even that tiny movement seemed like art to me.

“Where’s Jenna?” I asked.

“She had a phone call,” He jerked his head towards the jewellery store. “Her friend Jackson.”

I looked at him. He looked at me, clean and clueless. Didn’t he see? How could he be so blind? I bit my lip hard to stop the truth blurting out.

“Have you ever met Jackson?” I asked. I don’t know what I was thinking. I felt reckless all of a sudden, helpless under the great weight of the truth.

He looked faintly surprised at the question.

“No. I don’t think so.”

Opportunities. We looked at each other and he smiled guilelessly, making my insides spin. There was no off button. No way to stop the desperation. If I could have blocked him out of my life maybe it would be different. But I couldn’t. I was helpless, condemned to open the door and have him walk right past me and into her arms.

Would it ever stop? I could have ended it, rendered it dead and finished. I had the ammunition. I had the truth in my clenched fists but I had to resist, had to stifle the rifling urge to kill their connection. I stared at the books until eventually Jenna finished her call and came over and the moment was lost. The three of us wandered aimlessly through the city until sunset and then we went into a warm, heaving restaurant and ate warm steaming food and it was a place I’d always liked but if someone had said there was a new chef I’d have believed them because everything tasted like cardboard.

“That waiter won’t stop looking at you,” Jenna said halfway through and I frowned because she always said stupid things like that and I knew for a fact that the waiter would have been looking at her, not me, because everybody always looked at her.

“Which waiter?” I asked regardless because why not? Why not make stupid, pointless conversation to distract from the draining loneliness?

“That one,” She nodded her head towards the bar. “What do you think?”

I turned obediently. The man in question was tall with dark hair.

“He’s – okay,” I said noncommittally.

“God, you’re hard to please,” she sighed, rolling her eyes. She stood up. “I need to go fix my eyeliner.”

She went to the bathroom and Noah looked at me and smiled that perfect beautiful fairy-light smile and it felt like I could go blind and it wouldn’t matter because once I’d seen that smile, the world had nothing more to give.

And maybe it didn’t. I’d seen it all. I knew how to live, knew how to give. Knew how to take, how to fake, how to suppress the bottomless lake of aching. But this? This was the worst of it all. Forget everyone before. This. Sitting across from him at the table and being so unable to verbalise how much I felt for him. It felt like the horrific, treacherous secret might just burst out of me and maybe he sensed it. Maybe it came off me in some sort of undiscovered sixth sense because his eyes didn’t move from mine but his smile faded.

“I’m sorry,” he said and I wasn’t even sure he said it because his voice was so quiet but then he cleared his throat and said it again. “I’m sorry, Zoe.”

I looked at him without looking at him, the way you look at a book without reading it.

“For what?”

He opened his mouth. I could have leaned across the table and kissed him. I imagined it in my head, and came so close to living the fantasy that I had to sit on my hands.

“For – whatever,” he said, finally.

He picked up his glass and gulped quickly, ice cubes clinking. And Jenna didn’t care. Jenna wouldn’t see the way his fingertips left imprints in the condensation. And she wouldn’t see the way his mouth tightened as he swallowed, or the perfect dip of his Adam’s apple. She didn’t care. She was probably texting Jackson in the bathroom. And sure enough when she came back in a breeze of perfume and perfection, her eyeliner looked exactly the same as it had when she’d left. She hadn’t even touched up her lipstick. But what did it matter? It didn’t change anything. He was still hers and he always would be.

I looked away and Jenna had been right because I caught the eye of the tall waiter and the silent contact lingered just long enough to make me feel flattered. I looked at Jenna and Noah who were laughing helplessly at some inside joke. The waiter came over.

“Look, I know this is kinda forward but you wouldn’t want to get a drink or something would you? My shift is just ending so - ?”

He let the question hang unfinished and before I could say no, Jenna chipped in.

“She’d love to.”

He didn’t look at her but his eyebrows lifted in expectation.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

*

We went to a very crowded and very expensive bar opposite the restaurant. The waiter’s name was Caleb and he drank beer and I drank mojitos and then felt guilty because they cost so much and I almost couldn’t bear for him to pay the tab because he was a waiter and maybe he didn’t have much money. So I made up a story that I’d just won a small fortune on a scratch card the previous day and he very reluctantly let me cover the bill which was an immense relief.

We talked about things. Families and Christmas and how unfair it was for the weather to be so cold and yet for there to be no snow. It felt good. Half-friendship, half-flirting. Skirting around topics that could have killed the mood. He was smart and he had a nice laugh and when we went out of the bar his hand was so warm that I didn’t want to let go of it. I didn’t. He kissed me in the street just as sleet started coming down and it felt so sweet and romantic that my alcohol infused brain decided it was fate. I went home with him.

It felt good. It felt warm. He had an easy smile and dark eyes and I’d spent so many months of wanting that I’d forgotten the joy of being wanted. This wasn’t make-believe. This wasn’t pretend. This was mutuality; his mouth on mine and his tongue forking into my mouth as his hands went under my shirt. So much more than fantasy. I kissed him until we were gasping and then I kissed him some more. We stumbled through the door into his bedroom, fumbling with clothes until we fell onto the bed, him on top.

“You’re so pretty,” he said and it was a nice word. I liked it. There was something soft and delicate and not too showy about it.

“So are you,” I said and he laughed and I laughed but it was true. His eyelashes were long and his face structured like the kind of guy you might see in a perfume commercial. He kissed me much more gently than before and trailed a path of kisses down the centre of my body. I realised too late what he was about to do and propped myself up on my elbows to look down at him.

“What are you doing?”

He laughed again. “Nothing much.”

He was between my legs and his tongue came out to press hard against my clit. His finger pushed inside me, curling and searching and he knew what he was doing. He knew how to make me come and he did it until I felt like I might never stop; his tongue and fingers working me skilfully. I wondered hazily if he might expect me to go down on him in return and I tried to move towards his cock but he crawled back on top of me and kissed me again. His hand caught one of my legs pulling it up so his cock could push against me.

“Fuck,” he groaned out the word as he pushed inside me, stretching and filling me. It had been too long. Too many sleepless nights of nothing but my own fingers. His hands moved over my body urgently, stroking and groping so reverently that I felt almost beautiful. His cock drove in and out of my grasping snatch and I lifted my hips to meet him for each thrust. I stopped listening to the things he was saying, maybe because I might have started believing them.

I came again, with him inside me and he came too, so hard and urgently that I felt each rippling pulse of his cock. In any other time of my life he might have been just about perfect. But it wasn’t the right time and I was too blind to appreciate him.

We lay in the aftermath, his fingertips walking a listless path across my warm skin. I felt like he was looking for more than the hollow pleasure; like he was treasure hunting, searching for something, anything, but I was nothing. I had nothing more to give him.

“I’m gonna get in the shower,” he said finally. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Fine. Thank you.”

Thank you. Thank you for your attention and your mouth and your hands and your perfect cock. Thank you for making me feel unempty for one beautiful evening.

He disappeared from the room and a minute later, I heard the water start. I sat up fast, unable to quell the intense sense of shame. I dressed. Underwear. Jeans. Shirt. Sweater. Coat. I didn’t want to leave the warm apartment but how could I stay? How could I play it like it was all okay? It wasn’t okay. I didn’t even know him, let alone like him.

Outside, the dark ground glittered with frost, like it was embedded with millions of lost diamonds. I almost slipped and fell countless times. I wondered how ridiculous I looked to everyone driving by in their warm cars and walked faster and slipped harder until I finally made it into our building.

To my great dismay, Jenna was awake.

“You’re home,” she said.

“Duh.” I closed the door and took my time locking it in the hope she’d leave me alone. She didn’t.

“You shouldn’t be with someone for the sake of being with someone,” she said softly. “There should be more. You should know them. Trust them.”

I turned around, my voice as cold as the rest of me.

“And you’d be an expert on trust, right?”

She blinked, clean, warm and angelic and I felt so impossibly inferior but I couldn’t show it. I made to unbutton my coat but my fingers were numb with cold. I pretended I was smoothing it down instead. Jenna watched.

“Zoe, I’m just saying that -”

“I don’t care.” I said. “I don’t need your advice.”

She sighed. “Yeah. Okay.”

She stepped forward and unfastened my coat and it was the kind of thing only she’d ever know to do and it made my eyes water.

*

In the end, patience paid off.

“Noah and I broke up last night.”

I expected to feel relief at the news but it didn’t come. I felt awful, like I was somehow responsible for the ending.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She shrugged.

“I have some stuff at his place. Would you go get it for me?”

It always happened. I was the dutiful sidekick, carefully picking up the pieces of her beautiful messes. I couldn’t have counted the number of ex-boyfriends apartments I’d retrieved her assorted possessions from. The men themselves were usually downcast, eyeing me silently or imparting information for me to take back to Jenna. I rarely relayed the messages.

But Noah was different. The idea of seeing him, being alone with him, filled me with a deadly thrill.

“Jenna, I can’t. I’m working late anyway.”

“So go afterwards,” she said. “Please. You know I’d do the same for you. Please.”

“Why’d you guys break up anyway?” I stalled. “Jackson?”

The name sounded vicious in our warm living room. I wished I hadn’t said it.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” She concentrated on her phone, her thumbs typing fast but she narrowed her eyes and I knew it was so I wouldn’t see the tears. It made me want to cry too. What could I say? It was over. She’d taken him and used him up and now he was gone and it was her own fault but – but what? Why couldn’t I hate her?

“Please, Zoe,” She looked at me. “Please. Then all this is over and we can do whatever you want. Just us. I feel like I miss you.”

I’d missed her too. Noah had shifted the dynamic between us, lifted the warmth and replaced it with envy and confusion. Perhaps now we could go back to being us.

*

I’d never been to Noah’s place before. It was untidy; clothes and sports equipment littering the living space. Stacks of mail, magazines and leaflets adorned every surface. Bottles of water in various stages of emptiness were lined up on the windowsill. A solitary Christmas card sat on the cluttered mantelpiece. I glanced hastily around, trying to identify any of Jenna’s items.

“Her stuff is mostly in the bedroom,” Noah said and I followed him carefully through to the marginally tidier room. The bed was unmade, the window open wide and the cold January wind breezing through Thankfully, Jenna’s clothes were mostly in the wardrobe but some were on the floor next to the bed and I sifted through, separating hers from his. It felt like a terrible thing to be doing; like cleaning up after a party that had gone wrong.

“She was cheating on me, wasn’t she?”

The question came from the doorway. Noah’s voice was calm. He looked at me across the room as I stowed clothes into my gym bag.

“Zoe?”

I didn’t look at him. To look at him would be to confess and if I confessed one truth maybe the bottleneck would give and every other truth I’d been storing would come pouring out. But he already knew. He knew it. He saw it. He felt it.

“How could you not tell me?” he asked. “Have you two been laughing at me this whole time?”

I exhaled, struggling with the zipper on the overflowing bag.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

He came over and crouched down to help me.

“God,” he said. “I can’t believe how much time I wasted on that liar.”

I pulled the bag away from him.

“Don’t talk about my sister like that.”

He took the bag back and drew the zip closed.

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

He was right but I still felt obliged to protest.

“She’s still my sister. She’s never hurt me.”

He laughed.

“C’mon, Zoe. Don’t you think she sees you? She knows how you feel and she throws it in your face every single fucking day.”

I blanched. How could he know how I felt? The secret was mine, running around me, filling my veins but never spilling out. How could he have seen something I’d stored so carefully inside?

“How I feel?” I asked cautiously.

He looked at me, and he didn’t smile.

“What, you think I’m blind?”

I felt my face heat rapidly. I wanted to cry.

He frowned.

“Hey, don’t. There’s nothing wrong in feeling something.”

I laughed emptily.

“Really?”

“Of course not. But you say Jenna’s never hurt you? You don’t think she sees? She’s either stupid or cruel. And we both know she’s not stupid.”

I didn’t believe him. He was hurting and he was bitter and he wanted to ruin us, to burn everything, turn everything Jenna had into a pile of worthless ash. I didn’t believe him. Jenna wasn’t cruel unless there was cruelty in oblivion. I stood up.

“I think I’ve got everything anyway.”

He followed me through to the front door.

“I guess this is goodbye then,” He unlocked the door but he didn’t open it. “You know, I’m gonna miss you, Zoe.”

I looked up at him and because I’d never have to see him again, I suddenly didn’t care what he thought of me.

“Really?” I asked.

His smile curled flawlessly.

“Really,” he said. He opened the door but then he shut it again.

“You know that time I told you I was sorry and you didn’t know what for?”

I blinked. “Yeah?”

He inhaled.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t meet you first, Zoe. Really fucking sorry.”

We looked at each other and the moment I’d dreamt of was there. Delicate and intimate. I looked at his mouth and his hand came out and he would have touched my face. I would have felt his fingers and he would have kissed me and perhaps it would have been everything I’d dreamed of but I couldn’t. I moved away and he dropped his hand and opened the door and I walked out and never saw him again.

Jenna would move on. She always did and it never took her very long and he would mean nothing to her. She wouldn’t speak of him and yet I could never go near him again. He was hers even though he wasn’t hers anymore. I couldn’t touch him. And I told myself that it didn’t matter because maybe to act on it would have ruined it. Maybe the beauty was in that endless longing; in the way I could never have him but only ever dream of him.

Dreams are better than reality. It would have been awkward, edges cutting into the soft fantasies, edges of reality, of Jenna and guilt, spilling dirt over the flawless delusion. She’d move on. He’d move on. And as impossible as it seemed at the time, so would I.

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