Twenty Four: Love Hurts

A month later
Taylor


Sometimes, things happen that you just can’t explain.

Ghost stories. Upside-down tornados. Crop circles. America’s obsession with Survivor.

My attraction to her.

I really couldn’t explain it. Was this the way love was supposed to happen? I didn’t know. Everything I thought I knew about love, about how it worked, how it developed, was slowly being erased by my time spent with Alley.

She wasn’t my type... or at least, the type I had always gone for... I had generally dated girls who were beautiful, soft-spoken, and a little slow upstairs, to be honest. They were nice girls, I guess, maybe a little bland and dumb, but they were usually good for my ego. Like Jennifer. I'd always thought she was totally hot, despite her lack of conversational abilities. But hey, you didn't need to talk to make out and have a little fun... right?

Right?

Only... now, I wasn't so sure.

Alley was... different. She was the antithesis of the whole “dumb blonde” ideal. She was loud, brash, intelligent, and at first glance, not too striking in the looks department. Not that she was ugly -- she wasn’t, by any stretch of the word -- but she wasn’t the kind of girl who would immediately catch your eye in a crowd. The kind of girl I would have seen in the mall, or at a concert, and walked right past without giving a second glance...

I’d tried to convince myself up until now that I really didn’t like her. Like after that art thing? I’d decided that I was just really lonely and bored without her around... which was true. I mean, who else was I supposed to talk to? And whenever she went out with that guy, I even told myself that the slight tugging in my chest was just me missing Jennifer... which was, as Alley would have said, 'complete bullshit'. There was a more important, underlying reason to explain why I felt so much happier when she was with me, one which I was afraid to admit, even to myself.

It was just a crush... it had to be. I refused to admit that it could be anything more. I did let myself admit that I was attracted to her, and that I might like her as more than just a friend, but I tried not to let the word love enter into it. It would just mess everything up. She didn’t like me. She had her own budding relationship to worry about. Not to mention the logistics of trying to date a girl when you weren't even fully... real. That was just... odd. Freaky.

I rolled over on the couch, trying not to think about the unexpected twists my life had taken in recent months. Thinking was bad. I would just overanalyze everything and get myself all worked up. The clock on the wall steadily ticked away, and I glanced up at it. Alley had been virtually studying non-stop for days. I stood up and ran my fingers through my messy hair. It was time she had a break, in my opinion. I walked toward the other room.

She sat at the kitchen table, books spread out all around her. She’d been studying for hours already today, and it was only about six o’clock. I couldn’t see how she did it. I couldn’t even watch television that long without getting bored.

“How can you still be doing that?” I asked. “Aren’t you tired?”

She looked up at me, irritated. Her messy, oily hair was yanked back into a knot, and a cup of coffee stood within grasp. Her eyes were slightly red and there were dark bags from sleep deprivation under them.

“Yes, I’m tired,” she snapped, tossing her pen down.

“Well, take a break,” I suggested. Take a break and entertain me for awhile...

“I can’t, Taylor. This class is too important to be wasting time.”

I scoffed. “You’re wasting your time anyway. If you work too long on one thing without a break, then your concentration snaps and you get stressed. And stress is counterproductive,” I replied earnestly. “Believe me, I know. So, you should take a break, and come talk to me.”

She rubbed her temples before replying. “Come talk to you?”

“Yeah!”

“Why?” I was insulted that she would actually request a reason to come chat with me, but I indulged her.

“Because... I’m bored and you’ve been ignoring me for the past month. We need to have some sincere, honest conversation. Since you’re the only one I can actually converse with....”

She looked a little shocked at my answer. “I haven’t been ignoring you!”

I gave her a look. My mother always said that actions speak louder than words. She sighed.

“Alright, alright. Just let me finish up this page and I’ll take a break.”

“Okay,” I said, consenting. I glanced at her cup, half-full of cold cream-colored coffee. “Hey, you want me to make some more coffee?”

She smiled widely at me, and my heart fluttered annoyingly. “That would be great, Tay.”

I smiled back and turned to the cabinets, getting out the necessary elements for a great pot of coffee. She preferred John Conti dark roast, I knew, so I methodically scooped out several piles of the grounds and set the coffeemaker. It started brewing immediately, and minutes later, I was pouring the black liquid into a ceramic mug.

“Cream and sugar?” I asked.

“Of course. I don’t see how you drink that shit black.”

I chuckled as I opened the refrigerator and searched for something to snack on. "I drink my coffee like a man," I said smugly. She snorted.

“Okay, I’m done,” she announced minutes later, standing up to stretch. “Oh God, my back... I think I’ve pinched a nerve or something.”

She slowly rolled her head in circles and twisted from side to side, stretching out her tense muscles. I watched her intently, hating myself for loving the way the strands of escaped hair graced her elegant shoulders as she moved. I don’t like her, not like that...

I forced myself to turn back to the refrigerator. I DON’T, my mind insisted.It was hopeless... Who was I fooling? I thought about her every second of the day, I caught myself staring at her when she wasn't looking, I imagined what it would be like to kiss those thin, delicate lips, or--

“I’m gonna go sit down in the living room,” she interrupted my increasingly perverse thoughts.

“Okay, I’ll be right there, as soon as this is done,” I called back to her over my shoulder, as I doctored up her cup. Stop it, Taylor! Stop thinking about it! I shook my head to clear it, and grabbed two cups, one black, one with the required cream and sugar, and headed into the living room.

I sat down next to her, carefully placing both cups on the table. “Here you go.”

“Mmm. Thanks, hon,” she said, leaning back against the couch, her eyes closed. She yawned loudly, her mouth opening up wide. “So, Taylor.... what did you want to talk about?”

“Uh, nothing in particular..." Shit, I should have thought of a conversation topic before I dragged her in here. "I just.... you know... we haven’t really talked in a while.” That sounded so lame.

“Mmm.”

We sat for a few minutes, saying nothing. I had to do something to busy myself, or the silence was going to kill me. I grabbed my cup and quickly took a drink. Too quickly. It was hot. I sputtered and spilled half of my coffee down the front of my t-shirt.

“Argh!” I frantically lifted my now-burning shirt away from my chest. Fantastic.

“Oh, Taylor!” she giggled, jumping up and retreating from the room. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you to have patience?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, swiping feebly at the growing stain on my chest. Alley returned minutes later with a roll of paper towels in her hand. She ripped off several sheets and sat next to me, dabbing them against my shirt.

“Are you okay? It didn’t burn you, did it?”

“No... I’m not hurt... except for maybe my pride,” I mumbled.

She leaned back against the couch and grinned. “Pride? You still had some of that?”

“Ha ha.... hilarious.” I set the wet paper towels on the end table and sighed. Really, I probably should have gone upstairs and changed clothes, but I just didn't bother. I'd gotten her to come in and talk to me, and I wasn't about to leave and give her the opportunity to go back to studying.

“Well, I thought so.” She closed her eyes again and sighed. “Well, Taylor, you got me to take a break. Now what?”

“Well...” I really didn’t know what to say now that I had her in here. Ever since this Jonathan or Jason or whatever the hell his name was had started paying her a little attention, she had been somewhat out of reach. Not that she ignored me -- I was really just exaggerating about that -- but she was constantly gone, and somewhere out with him. Usually studying, it seemed like. At least that’s what she said, though it seemed like an awful lot of 'study dates' and not enough 'real dates' to get an accurate reading of his interests, in my opinion, anyway. But I decided to ask her about that. “How’s your studying going?”

She gave me an odd look. “Fine, I suppose. We’ll see after midterms, I guess.”

“What about your little friend?”

She smiled at the thought of him, making me scowl inwardly. “Oh, he’s doing good.... he got an A on the first test, that first one that I helped him with. And he’s been doing well in class.” She laughed sweetly. “He said he didn’t know what he would have done without me!”

Grrrrr. I bet. Jerk...

“Well, that’s nice," I said, trying vainly to keep the heavy sarcasm out of my voice. "So when are midterms?”

“This week. I have three... Biology is tomorrow.”

“Ah...” I nodded in understanding. Well, not really, since I'd never had to suffer through a midterms week... but I was trying, right?

We sat in silence for a few moments more, but at least this time it was more companionable. Suddenly she sat up, stretching her arms over her head. She looked over at me, a silly expression on her face, and then she leaned over and lay down on my lap. I momentarily lost my breath. Her head was on my legs, her arms draped and lightly holding my knees...

“Rub my shoulders,” she demanded.

I tried my best to sound insulted, and fervently hoped she couldn't detect the nervousness in my tone. “What do I look like, your slave?”

“Please? I’m so sore and tense. Please?” She rolled her head up to give me an earnest, pleading look. An adorable, earnest, pleading look... dammit, Alley...

“But--” I faltered.

She rolled back over, pressing her forehead against my thigh. “Come on, Taylor. Be a pal. Be a hero. If you love me you’ll do it.”

I grimaced at her ironic choice of words. Her face was obscured, so she couldn’t see me, a fact for which I was eternally grateful. I sighed loudly, feigning irritation, but complied. And I loved every minute of it.

Her shoulders and back were thin, but not bony, as one would expect. I gently kneaded her muscles with my hands. I wondered if he gave her backrubs. If he fixed her coffee. If he--

“Down a little bit,” she instructed. “Yeah, right there.” She sighed happily. “Taylor?”

“Yeah?”

“You have a girlfriend, right?”

Dammit.

I groped for the appropriate answer... well, yes, technically, but.. “Well, yeah... but...”

"Can I..." she rolled over again, until she was lying face-up. Her cheeks were slowly turning pink. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Um... okay..."

“What’s it feel like?”

“What’s what feel like?” I asked, confused. Having a girlfriend? What an odd question.

"You know..." Her face was darkening, and when I met her eyes, she quickly averted them.

"No, honey, I can't say that I do..." I was bewildered.

She sat up, hugging her arms around her waist. She turned to face me, and mumbled her question to my chest. "Sex. What's sex like?"

For a moment, I was speechless. I stared at her. "What?"

"Nevermind," she said hastily. "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry."

No, no, we're going to talk about this... "Why do you want to know?" I demanded. She was thinking about sex? With him? Oh, God... no, no, no...

"Taylor..." she said uncomfortably. "I'm just curious... I mean... it's pretty obvious I don't have any experience in that department..."

"And what makes you think that I do?" I considered adding that if she'd really like to know, I would be more than happy to take her upstairs and we could find out together...

She looked completely shocked, which insulted me, truth be told. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious. What makes you think I would know?"

"Taylor," she said, laughing. "I just thought... you know... you're a guy... you have a girlfriend... who I guess you've been dating for awhile..."

"So," I said, exasperated, "you figured I'd have slept with her by now. Thanks, Alley. I feel like a real gentleman."

Her eyes widened. "Taylor! Don't be mad... I'm sorry... but, I mean... haven't you ever thought about it?"

Thought about it? I was a 19-year-old hot-blooded male... of course I'd thought about it. Even come pretty close to actually doing it, in a moment of weakness with Jennifer, but had stuck to my guns in the end. Alley's lack of confidence in my self-control, however, was a little embarrassing. What did she think I was, some sort of man-whore? Just because I was a musician? Just because I had plenty of faceless, nameless girls who were all more than willing to give it up for the lead singer? "Yes. Who hasn't? But thinking and doing are very different things, Alley..."

"I know... but..." She sort of stumbled over her words. She looked so incredibly mortified by the topic she'd brought up... it was annoyingly cute. You can't be thinking about having sex with this guy, I thought, despaired. You barely even know him... you deserve better... I suddenly decided to add in another two cents on the issue.

"I don't believe in having sex with someone I don't love," I said. There. "Because, contrary to what you seem to think of me, I take it very seriously... just because I have the opportunity to sleep with girls doesn't mean I'm going to. Or that I have the desire to."

I thought I'd made my impact, but I was surprised at her answer. "You don't love your girlfriend?" She looked horrified. What? Who cares about my girlfriend? I'm trying to talk you out of getting naked with this idiot guy you're fawning over!

"Well," I said. "No. Nor have I ever been..." I added the last part for good measure.

“Well, why are you with her, then?” She studied me, the reddish tint fading from her complexion. “That doesn’t seem right.”

“It’s not," I agreed. "I don’t know, Alley. It’s like, I just went out with her once, just an average date, and then... she just started coming over a lot... and I kept going out with her. It was more like... a relationship from convenience and familiarity more than anything. I like her alright, she’s a nice girl, I guess. But I don’t love her.”

“That’s so sad, Taylor.” She stared at the floor, soaking in what I'd just told her. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!”

“I know,” I said quietly. “But that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

“Why don’t you break up with her? You’re just wasting your time... and hers, for that matter.”

“Well... yeah, I will, when I get back. I’d been thinking about it anyway... actually I hadn’t talked to her for awhile before my accident. Avoiding her, really...” I shrugged. “So she knows it’s coming... or knew, maybe I should say.”

“How long have you all been going out? What’s her name?”

“Her name’s Jennifer. Without counting how long I’ve been in this condition.... um....” I mentally calculated the time. “Let’s see..... about a year and a half. Although now it’s more like.... almost three years.”

“Wow,” she murmured. “You were with her for a year and a half and you don’t even love her. Did you think that you would ever start loving her, Taylor? You know, like after a while, you would realize that maybe she is the one?”

“No,” I admitted. It was the truth. Especially not now. Not when I was feeling these irritatingly affectionate feelings for the crazy blond sitting right next to me...

Taylor!!” she screeched. "Why?! Why even bother, then?"

“I stayed with her... I guess, more or less, because I didn’t want to be alone. And,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed, “because it was better for my, ah, reputation if I had a girlfriend.”

“Your reputation?”

“Come on, Alley. You yourself have made fun of me for my... let’s call them ‘limp-wristed’ tendencies...”

“Limp-wristed tendencies?!?” Was she just going to just keep repeating everything I said? I grunted in irritation.

“Dammit, Alley.... people think I’m gay. The hair, the clothes, the voice, the hand gestures... I guess I was a little sick of hearing that, and I thought that having a girlfriend would help matters.” Though that plan had come back to royally bite me in the ass in the end... the 'gay' comments kept coming, and now I was stuck with a bleached-blond idiot clinging to me every time we went out...

“Taylor,” She gave a little laugh of disbelief. “Who cares what other people think? Anyway, I never thought you were gay... I just thought you kinda looked like a girl...” She grinned at me sheepishly. “But you don’t anymore... not really... hehe... ah, nevermind.”

I looked at her sourly. “Thanks. That means a lot.”

She playfully punched my shoulder. “Oh, come on. You’re beautiful and you know it, Taylor.”

Did she just say I was beautiful? Was that good or bad? Before I could think of a way to say 'Thanks' without sounding like a total arrogant prick, she spoke up again, a contemplative look on her face.

"So... you're not in love with this girl. Have you ever been in love? What's that like?"

Ah, a more PG-rated question that I could actually answer. I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Falling in love.... is kinda scary. You don’t know it’s happening, until one day, you just sort of realize... Uh...” I trailed off for a second, feeling my face grow hot. It's just a crush, it's just a crush... that line kept running through my head, though I knew it wasn't true. “And it can hurt, too.... especially if that other person doesn’t love you back, or at least not in that way.”

She looked slightly horrified. “You make it sound awful, Taylor.”

“Well, no, it’s not awful.... it’s really quite nice sometimes... but it’s not all roses and chocolates all the time, either...”

She squinted her eye and pursed her lips, thinking. “So... just to clarify... you’re not in love with your girlfriend, but you have been in love?”

“I am in -- uh, yeah.” I cut my sentence off quickly. Way to go, moron, I thought silently.

“With who?” she straighteed up and her eyes widened excitedly. “A fan? Your next-door neighbor? Are you having an illicit affair, Taylor?”

“No, honey... I'm not having an affair." I had to smile at her enthusiasm. "This girl doesn't even know I love her. Well, I wouldn’t say that I was completely in love with her or anything.... I mean, it’s kind of in the process, I guess you could say.... she's just a friend of mine.”

“A friend?”

“Is there an echo in here? You’ve been repeating everything I’ve said tonight!” I quickly changed the subject. This was getting too close for comfort.

“Sorry! I’m just trying to learn here.” She turned away from me and then leaned back, her head fitting perfectly in the crook of my neck. I hesitantly put my arm around her in what I hoped was a platonic fashion. She yawned.

“So is this what your interrogation has been leading up to? Do you think you’re in love with him or something?” Please say no, please say no...

She laughed. “Oh, no. I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t know him well enough to decide that or not.”

I inwardly sighed with relief. “Well, remember that guy at the mall? The one you said you were ‘in love’ with?” I ended the sentence in a high falsetto, mocking her. “You knew him for all of five minutes!”

“Oh, good grief, Taylor. That was just exaggeration.” She pinched my leg. “Stop being difficult. Although I do believe in love at first sight.”

“I don’t.”

“Yes, we’ve already established that. But you have a reason for it. The music industry has made you a cold, bitter shell.” Although I couldn’t see it, I could feel her grin.

“Ah, yes..." I said dryly. "Taylor Hanson, the cold, bitter, shell of a man.... that’s me...”

She giggled. “I knew you’d see things my way.”

“So,” I said, steering the conversation back to her. “You think you’re gonna love this guy, eventually?” Please say no, please say no...

“Oh... I don’t know....” Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but much better than a resounding Yes!

“Well, why are you dating him, then?” I mocked her again.

“Well, because... I’m testing the waters. There might be something there. I just have to find it.”

“What if you don’t find it?”

“Then... he’s gone. Out. History.”

“Really?” I looked at her, a little amazed. She had gone to so much trouble to get attention from this guy... she was saying she’d throw it all away, just like that?

She leaned her head back so that I could see her face and rolled her eyes at me. “Yes! Why would I waste my time on someone who I have no future with? Jeez, Taylor. I’ve never even had a real relationship before and I know these things.”

“Somehow I find that hard to believe.”

“What? That I would get rid of him if we didn’t have a chemistry?”

“No,” I replied. “That you’ve never had a boyfriend.”

“Well,” she said tersely. “I haven’t. Not a real one.”

“Oh, so you’ve had fake ones? The kind that blow up?” I snickered, and ruffled her hair gently.

“Shut the hell up, Taylor. You know what I mean. Guys just don’t like me.”

“Oh, come on,” I coaxed her. “Sure they do.”

“No, Taylor, they really don’t. You have no clue. You don’t know, so don’t argue.”

“I do know!” I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth. I was getting too close again... She sat up abruptly and turned around, a questioning look on her face at the forceful way I'd spoken those words.

“And just how would you know?”

My mouth fell open slightly and I quickly tried to think of an appropriate response. Hmm... let’s see.... I could say 'Nevermind,' which would surely backfire and cause her to nag at me even more.... I could give her some speech about how surely guys liked her because she was such a wonderful girl, which she wouldn’t believe for a second....I could... confess to her what I felt and say that’s how I knew, because I was a guy that liked her... or... I could fall to the floor and fake a seizure, which might make her forget what we were talking about.

That last option was looking more and more appealing as the seconds ticked away. I eyed the floor, mentally judging where I should fall to minimize injury, when the phone shrilly rang. Her eyes widened and she leaped up from the couch and ran to the phone. I knew who it was, and so did she, based on the look on her face. It was him.

“Oh, hi!” she exclaimed into the phone. “Oh, I was just taking a break.” She shuffled out of the room with the phone. I would have been offended that she left so suddenly... if I hadn’t been so relieved.

I stretched myself out on the couch and covered my face with my hands. Whoa. Things had gotten way too out of control there for a second. Discussions about sex and love with my infatuation? Awkward... Honesty wasn’t always the best policy... especially not in my situation. I didn’t know how much longer I would be stuck like this, out here with her, but I didn’t want to risk our current status. Just friends. If I tried to go any further, she would just get freaked and then things would be awkward... and right now, she was my only available friend. Not good.

Calm down, Taylor.


I exhaled deeply and sat back up. I felt a little better. I rubbed my hands together nervously and waited for her to return.

A few minutes later, she did. With a big dreamy grin on her face. I stared. I wanted to be the one who caused grins like that...

“So,” I asked sarcastically. “When’s the wedding?”

“Shoosh. We’re studying again tomorrow.” She replaced the phone and resumed her position on the couch. “Were you saying something?”

“No,” I said hastily.

“Are you sure?” Her brow furrowed. “Sorry, I just got up and ran out of here all of a sudden, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

“You didn’t. Hey, look... it’s almost eight o’clock!” I raised my voice at this last statement. Perhaps it was a stupid way to divert her attention, but it worked. She looked up at the clock, gave a little shriek, and threw herself down on the couch. I grabbed the remote and flipped the TV to Fox. The Simpsons. What else would have worked? I mentally thanked Matt Groening for this convenient distraction.

I loved this show, but Alley loved it even more. She didn’t just laugh when she watched it. She guffawed. Full-bodied, complete with the occasional knee-slapping and fist-thumping against the armrests. Watching her watch the show, in fact, was sometimes funnier than the show itself.

I had thirty minutes to regather my thoughts and get a grip. Luckily, it was enough time. When the show ended, she stood up.

“Ohhhh,” she yawned again, stretching her arms over her head. “Well, it’s time for me to get back to work. Lots to do.” She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, an affectionate, sisterly kiss that raised my blood pressure much more than it should have. “Thanks, Taylor. That really helped. And we got to have a good talk.”

“Yeah,” I said softly, staring at the television as she left the room. “We sure did.”