It's About You

I will say this: I am not bitter. That is not the reason or excuse for my bluntness. I simply say life as I see it. That, however, doesn't mean I am not a liar. Being blunt and being a liar are two different things entirely, which I believe can coincide. Some would think a bitter mentality, or an attitude of self-righteousness is deeply rooted in the mind of a pathological liar. I deny this. However, "pathological" doesn't really apply to me anyway. Either I am being completely truthful, which is about half the time, or I am fabricating everything.

It is not bitterness, nor any vindictive motive that causes me to call my brother, a life-threateningly overweight manic-depressive, a fat ass in both his company and his absence. I love my brother. But everyone knows that if you had forgotten his name, and had to refer to him, you would say, "You know… Essy's brother.." at which point your voice would drop to a hiss. "…The…er…heavier guy." As if stressing the "-ier" implies that is not heavy enough for it to be shameful. Everyone knows he's a fucking fat ass, and that it's not likely he'll live to be forty. And anyone who denies that it is disgusting, that it is horrendous, and life threatening is lying through their teeth. And that kind of lying warrants a good kick at the back of the knees.

Laying on a grassy patch of lawn on my college campus, I wake up to the ticking of my ten dollar watch. It reminds me, Time is wasting. Time for what, in the grand scheme of things, we may never know. For example, is it time for me to lay here in the grass and take life easy, because in the end it isn't worth fussing over anyway? Or, is it time to take life by the reins to reap the benefit of hard work? For practical purposes, I decide it is time to hunt down Nell, the girl I have been lusting after ever since the year began. I decide it is time to convince her to have a drink with me.

I find her in the library, and I find her difficult to approach. She isn't necessarily a very intimidating girl at first glance. However, the very fact that she is always underestimated seems to have chiseled her into an even harder person than she would have been otherwise. With a slight frame, dirty blonde hair that has never been dyed, and a face unblemished by makeup, most think nothing of her. That may be why I am so eager. Maybe I see her as an overlooked jewel, an uncharted island, therefore being all the more enticing?

She's leaning over a book, her left hand curled up in the crook of her neck. I can stare as long as I want to, but staring, especially getting caught staring like a drunkard, will not help my chances of getting her to go out with me. I go to her.

"Nell…" I call. She looks up from her book fro a moment, and returns to it again. "Want to have a drink with me tonight?"

"Esther, we've been through this. I don't want to give you the wrong idea." She would think she sounds rejecting, but I can hear the playfulness in her voice. I press on.

"Please don't call me Esther, no one does."

She rolls her eyes.

"Oh, come on now. I know you're straight. I swear I will be civilized. You will have complete and utter control over whether you sleep with me-"

She shoots me a piquant glare.

"-or not."

She is still staring at the book, but her eyes are unmoving. I drum my fingers on the table. "Just because you don't want to fuck me doesn't me I don't want to hang out with you. Believe me, I've been turned down before."

Nell continues to avert her eyes, perhaps a little sympathetic towards me. I don't like pity, but if it helps me get her out with me, I will take it. She finally looks up, though not directly at me, and nods. "Okay."

"Nine?" I ask.

"Sure. Where do you want to go?"

I pick her up in a cab, and we go to a local bar. The dark wood makes it harder to notice the dust on the tables, but I soak in the aristocratic air of it. As if it had once been a very important pub to high-society types, in which paramount matters were discussed. The older business suits still came here, trying to keep it up as the latest sophisticated bar. But the few small groups only made the emptiness of it seem more intimidating, and they stood around, sipping at their drinks often, eyes always flicking over to the door, hoping to see more co-workers showing up. Nell and I sit at the bar. I order a beer, and she makes it two. I take a moment while she studies the surroundings to study her. She has tried to be casual, still wearing the jeans she was wearing earlier, but her shirt has been changed to a scoop-neck lavender tee with three-quarter sleeves. It is crisp and new; I can see the mannequin from the store wearing it and catching her eye. Yes, she thought, going to find one in her size.

"New shirt?" I comment.

She blushes and meet my eyes, "Yeah, actually. I was out browsing around today, and sort of bought it on a whim."

I let a little bit of silence hang between us as I openly admire it. "It looks great."

"Thanks," she smiles.

"Is this the first time you've gone out with a woman?" I ask.

She hesitates, not sure how I mean "gone out." "Yeah."

"Well, I'm honored to be your first gay date." I hold up my drink. "A toast?"

"Hey," she warns. "This isn't a date." But she lifts her glass and toasts me.

The night goes by, we get small greasy appetizers once we've had enough to drink. I keep her laughing, and she tells me little details about herself. Once, she asks me, "Is my face turning pink?"

"No…why?"

She giggles, "Because sometimes my face gets all flushed when I drink."

And another drink later, I see that it's true. Everything's going well, and I touch her thigh with my hand. I didn't really mean to, but I did. Not that I was going to take it back now that it was there. Nell recoils without moving; holds her breath and her eyes show her hesitation. She doesn't know if she wants this. Her uncertainty is so apparent that it makes me a little uncertain myself. Maybe I am pushing too hard. Maybe I was wrong, and she really is straight, but trying not to offend me. I have taken this step before, and don't like to remember how I felt before taking it. I couldn't tell if what I thought or what anyone else thought was right or wrong. All I could do was hold on to that instinctive pull in my gut that was buried deep, under my intestines where it has never seen the light of day. And after that first time, after saying it and feeling it through, it slowly spread, and became part of my entire body. I understood why I was uncomfortable before. It had been like being a child, not understanding sex but witnessing a passionate scene in a movie.

Nell still hasn't said anything, and I finally take my hand off her leg and wrap it around my drink instead. "I'm sorry."

"No…don't be," she says. "I…I just don't know."

"That's okay," I said. "I know how you feel. But you won't be sure until you take that chance."

"I don't know…"

"Can you honestly say you aren't the least bit interested?" I reach over, sliding a few fingers down those precious inches of bare skin. "Or the least bit curious?"

Flush crept up her neck. I slide my fingertips along the hem of her top, making her sigh. I take her hand and she squeezes it, holds on to it for fear of her life.

I tuck her into a cab. Passing under a streetlamp, I see her smiling.

I put my key in the lock, put my fingers in her hair. She clutches at me, afraid, and I hold her tightly. My lips graze her neck, making her breath speed. I bite at her earlobe, letting my breath rush over her skin. She shudders under my hands.

"I can't stand it," she says. I kiss her, and she kisses me. We don't make it to the bed, and I wonder if she if comfortable. But she does not stop, so she must not have felt the rough carpet against her. I'm lightheaded, she's trembling. We're breathing together, and I'm inhaling her sweat. And when our breathing slows, and our hearts are calm again, we slink into my bedroom, fall onto the cool sheets and sleep. My dreams are full of the smell of her.

When I wake up, I trace her slender back with my fingertips, and she doesn't wake. I wait a while before waking her, trying to be patient. But I'm not good at patience, and I urge Nell, "Wake up…"

She yawns deeply and stretches her legs, catlike. She looks over her shoulder briefly, a wounded look in her eyes. Sitting up slowly, she pulls the covers off her body. Saying nothing, she begins looking under the blankets. I touch her naked back and she flinches.

"Nell?"

She doesn't turn, but she's breathing fast. "Just don't…" she whispers. "Not right now." She finds her pants and stuffs he longs legs inside.

"Don't say it's a mistake," I say, but I don't think she hears me. I lay back on the bed; my naked torso exposed, and watch her dress.

"Would you like me to call you a cab?" I offer.

She shakes her head, a few strands of hair sticking to her wet cheeks. "No." She shuts her eyes, holding back her conflict as she ties her shoelaces. Not wasting time to put on her socks, she has just stuffed them into a ball in her pants pocket.

Nell looks back at me, only at my eyes, since she doesn't dare look at my body. She fumbles for the doorknob, and she says nothing. Her hair whirls around her as she turns and walks out the door.

I begin to get dressed.

Few times do I lie to myself; it is not usually effective. I don't consider myself to be easily fooled, even by a liar as accomplished as myself. But I've heard that people often convince themselves of things that aren't true. So I tried to do that when my gynecologist was describing symptoms of most STDs. Itchiness, unusual aroma, and discharge. When asked if I had experienced any of this I denied it, and tried to tell myself that what I'd experienced was different. I didn't want her to tell me that there was even a chance I could be infected. I couldn't have an STD. I couldn't. I did not want to have to even think about it. Lying to my doctor came easily enough, but lying to myself is rarely successful. I merely pushed the idea of being infected out of my head.

A week later, it came in the mail from the clinic; a thick envelope, with a pamphlet and a letter. I read the passage in the pamphlet, but it explained nothing. My pap smear was "unusual." Only that it could be a sign of more serious things. How serious was it already? The letter had a handwritten note on the corner, followed by a phone number.

Esther, please call to discuss.

And that makes it all the worse. I have to call and ask questions that will have answers that I don't want. I find myself cursing. I'm scared. No, I'm stupid. Stupid to have not used a condom once or twice. When I had still been sleeping with men, my only fear had been pregnancy, and I had been on birth control. And now I'm infected. I'm diseased. I'm unhealthy. Unwanted, no good to anyone now.

As I drive past the town's grid of expensive housing, I take in the gray tone of the world that day. As if someone had placed a background image meant for a rainy day, but someone had left the water off. The ground is stamped with sodden leaves. It's the same street that kids will Trick-or-Treat on, all gaiety and mischief.

Outside my car the air is cold and biting and clean. But there's a feeling etched in the lining of the clouds, the edges of the leaves. Romantic and dreamy, it takes me far away.

Entering the campus, I get the strangest feeling that I've never been there before. It's a s if the people around me, I have never known. The paths and hallways and walls are foreign. Just a stage in a cliché movie. All the characters are identifiable, but I don't

know them anyway.

And now I realize I'm disassociating. I've become a character too. The dirty one, the one nobody mentions after they say, "She's got an STD." What other story does that character have? I affect no one. I am a statistic.

The day passes and I don't remember exactly what happened. I went to classes. Teachers lectured. I took notes.

I go home and see the message light blinking on my phone. Through my thick haze I think, Nell. Hitting PLAY, I sit on my couch.

"You have –one- new message," it tells me.

"Hello Esther," my mother's voice broke through the machine. "I just called to double check that you are going to be there on Saturday to visit Charles. I called and we're okay to see him at four. So, call me back and let me know. Bye."

Slowly, I let out a heavy breath. My head falls back to rest against the couch and I sink into it. I didn't want to see anyone again. And I would say that my brother would be the last "anybody" right now. I feel the sour taste of vomit in the back of my throat. My stomach is churning. Shedding my coat and my bags to the floor, I lay back and stare at the ceiling. I resist, but feel the obligation of family forcing me to go. I want to dissolve into sugary crystals, and fall into my carpet where no one would be able to glean all of me back out.

It is already late October, and all the leaves have died. Winter is about to come around, and bring with it that practical perspective, where I always find things simpler. Any fantastic ideas I may have had in summer wiled the leaves, and life becomes about one step to the next. Step one: Wake up. Step two: Take a shower. Step three: Get dressed. Step four: Start car and let it warm up. But now I'm much further along. Step 241: Call your mother back and tell her you'll be there Saturday. Why? Because I have to. I am family, and we are supposed be there for each other. All that shit. Also, what I'll have to put up with when I go is minimal compared to the guilt trip I would get if I didn't.

I pull myself back over to the phone and dial my mother's number.

"Hello?" she answers.

"Hey mom," I say, too quietly, too somberly. I didn't mean to give myself away like that.

"Hey babe," she says. "Are you okay? You sound depressed." I know she's asking because she wants to know, not just because it's polite. I prepare myself, try to imagine using a happier tone, but when I open my mouth, I just can't.

"Sure," was all I could manage.

"Elaborate. What's going on?"

"I'm alive, I have a roof over my head, I'm going to college and passing all my classes. So I'm doing okay," I elaborated.

"Well, what's not okay? Because something's off."

For a second I want to break down to her like I used to when I was younger. I want to cry and tell her I'm afraid and that I'd be happy for the rest of my life is she would somehow make all this STD shit go away. But I know she already has one broke kid. My brother is enough to deal with. I don't really know anything at this point anyway, I think. I'll tell her when I know for sure.

"Don't worry about it," I answer. "Just having a bad day."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," I kick off my shoes and tuck my feet underneath me.

"Is it about Charles?"

I scoffed and tried not to at the same time. "No." The days when I use to let all my brother's drama torture me were long gone. I learned a long time ago to let him worry about it, because he made it obvious that I can't help him.

"I felt her bristle at the other end. "Well, speaking of Charles… Can you make it on Saturday?"

I want to lie and say I can't. I have a class. I'm picking up an extra shift at work. But I don't. Who knows why… "Yeah, I'll be there."

"Meet me at the entrance at four?"

"Yeah." There was a silence between us for a moment, and I can see her grading papers on the other end. I let her do it, since I know that my mother can't do one thing at a time. She is always multi-tasking. I used to think it was because she doesn't have enough time to do things one by one. But now that both my brother and I are out of the house, and she's no longer responsible for taking care of us, I wonder if she just got so use to it, that now she doesn't know how to take her time.

She remembers she's on the phone and speaks up. "He's doing much better since Wednesday."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. They may release him as soon as Monday."

"Good," I said. Wait, you should sound more earnest than that. "Great!" I sound far from emphatic. My body is heavy again and I don't want to talk anymore. "Look, I've got some homework I've got to start on before work, so-
"Yeah, I'll let you go."

"See you tomorrow, mom."

"I love you, Esther."

"Love you, too."

I come back from the hospital the next day to a dark home. I left the drapes pulled back from the window, but the sun has set and the moon is curtained tonight, its glow hidden. The only light in the room is the small blinking signal on my answering machine. I stand before it, letting it flash over me like a lighthouse. I don't want to hear from anyone. I have nothing to say. But I have nothing else to do. Reaching down, I press PLAY.

"You have –one- new message. New message –one."

At first, only white noise. But then, a breath and her voice comes breaking out.

"Hi Essy."

Nell.

"I'm so sorry. For how I acted the other day. Maybe you knew that, but in case you didn't… I am. Can I come by tomorrow? I want to see you. …I was just scared. I hope you understand. I think you do. Well… let me know. Here's my number: 555-0794."

"End of –messsage one- beep."

It would have been silent then, aside from the throbbing beat of my neighbor's music below me, thumping into the soles of my feet. I'm tired; more tired than I've been in a long time. I slink over to my couch and lay down, closing my eyes and sinking into the cushion. I become heavier and still heavier, until I know I am made of lead. Made of poison and waste. And I hadn't known. When I took Nell, all unsure and tipsy, into my arms that night. I hadn't know. There was no way I could have known, I try to tell myself, But the weight of guilt does not lift, and I soon fall asleep, crushed into the sofa by my own faults.

I wake off and on. My mind is whirling and I can't still it. I dream things and can't distinguish them from when I'm awake. Nell is on top of me, stroking my hair. She is loving me, and saying sweet things. But then she knows what I have, and is gone.

I walk around my apartment, shedding my jacket and changing into pajamas. I wonder if I will sleep. When I open my eyes again the searing red digits on the clock read 2:36. I think of calling the clinic later today, and actually asking someone about my pap smear, until I remember that it is Sunday, and everyone will either be in church, or reading the funnies.

And then I am in the hospital again, walking out of my brother's room and trying to find a doctor. I wander down the corridors, checking each room, but they are all empty. I enter the lobby, and find Nell there.

"I've been waiting," she says, with her naked back to me. I sit in the chair next to her. We look anywhere but at each other. But then I feel her eyes on me as I turn to face her, she lunges at me, kissing me with her teeth bared. I kiss her back, allowing her fangs to cut through my tongue, tear up my lips.

At 7:35 I wake and know it will be all the sleep I will get. I get up and shower, dress myself, and walk into the living room. I stare at my deserted bags and coat I left crumpled by the doorway. I tell myself I should tidy them up, but I don't have the will. I got into the kitchen and look in the fridge. Old hot dogs, milk, peaches, and leftover hamburger helper idly refuse to entice me. Closing the fridge, I want to sit down again, lay down again, sleep again. There is nothing else to do.

I leave my apartment and get into my car. Driving is more therapeutic than therapy, and a deal cheaper. There aren't many cars on the roads. As they pass me, some notice me crying, but I don't care. They do not know me, and most likely never will. And I feel no shame. It is quiet in the car, and my tears pollute the air around me. They are locked in here with me. I fell them in their entirety, as a whole; facing them. Then I am too tired and can't cry anymore.

I stop by a park near the river and shut off the engine. The silence fills in where the noise was. I step out and feel the cleanliness of the air outside of my car; how light and forgiving it is. It blows across my face, already drying my cheeks. The playground stands empty, but the cars lined up across the street hinted that once mass let out, it will be swarmed. As I walk over the wood chips to the swings, I decide there is something terribly sad about empty playgrounds. As if the children will never return. If feels right to sit on that swing in the early morning quiet. It calms me, and I push lightly away from the ground, swinging but never getting into the air.

I didn't know, I tell myself. That's the difference. I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't. I don't know the next step. I can't imagine calling Nell, or what I will tell her. I'm think that is the next thing to do, but I can't do it. I can't tell her how sorry I am.

The church door opens and the mob of followers pours out. Some kids are already running gleefully towards the playground with a recklessness only known in childhood. I remember that feeling, and long for its simplicity. It is yearning for something, having it in sight, and knowing you can have it. It was just a few steps away back then. I stop swinging and stand. My car is a good place again. The atmosphere I had created is now gone. It is fresh and new. I resent its ability to heal so easily

Nell sits absent-mindedly bobbing her head on my doorstep. She's wearing headphones, and didn't hear me climbing the stairs. She's mouthing the words, little bits of sound whistling out on accident. When she sees me, she tilts her head up and smiles, nervous and happy, and pulls off her headphones.

"Hi," she says.

"Hey," My voice came unpredictably easy, and I smile down at her, offering my hand. She takes it, and in one motion, pulls herself up and pulls me into her arms. She holds me, and I don't want to say anything just yet. Then she turns her head and waits for me to kiss her. I don't, but she doesn't notice, just leans in anyway, and presses her lips on mine. I can feel them smiling against mine.

"Do you want to come in?" I ask.

"Yeah," Nell nods. I unlock the door and switch on the light. "Sorry for the mess." My bags and coat still lay abandoned on the floor.

"What mess?" She sits on the sofa and watches as I hang up my keys. I turn and look at her, but she doesn't know what else to say. She just begins to notice how quiet I am.

"Do you want to sit down?" she invites.

"Sure." I sit next to her. She scoots to face me, and looks down at her hands.

"I'm sorry, Essy."

"No, Nell…"

"Please, let me say this," she pleads. "About how I acted the other day… I really am sorry. It was horrible. I was just really uncertain, you know?"

"I know," I say.

"I knew you would," she smiles at me, peeking out from under her eyelids. "I had to say it anyway, or else it wouldn't count. I just didn't know if it was too late to ask for another chance."

And that's where she stops, setting me up to finish it. To tell her that it's not anything to worry about; we'll start over.

"Nell, I need you to know something." She looks up at me, wanting to hear something charming that will tell her she did the right thing to come back to me. She wants me to sweep her off her feet. "I found out two days ago that I probably have an STD." I can't look at her. "I haven't found out for sure yet, but I plan to go see my gynecologist tomorrow…"

Nell doesn't say anything.

"…I didn't- when I took you home, Nell. I didn't know. If you want to be safe, you should probably go too. Get tested." The room spins. I can't breathe. "I'm sorry," I say, flat and dead. Like I'm not even speaking.

Three weeks later, I wake late. The sun blares in through my window, directly into my eyes. I have herpes, I think. I usually forget while I sleep, and think it best to remind myself of it the second I wake, so I won't get hopes up. I dreamt about Nell again. Rather than a new manifestation, I always dream of the last time I saw her. Her own test results had come back clean. I hadn't given it to her. The doctor said it was relatively difficult to contract it from a female. Nell came by and told me herself. I was happy for her. And I kissed her when she kissed me. Even more surprising, she wasn't afraid.

"I'll risk it. We'll be safe," she promised, touching my neck. I'll risk it.

I couldn't go farther. As soon as I thought of what could happen, I couldn't touch her. I couldn't let her touch me. She kept trying, and I kept pushing her hands back, keeping my body stiff. She kept promising. "Please," she had said. "I can't leave you."

But she did leave, in tears, I might add. I hadn't even tried to explain. But I think she knew.

I sit up, finally relieving my eyes from the red light shining at them behind their closed lids. I jerk back the blank I'd fallen asleep with. I couldn't escape the dream. I'll risk it, she'd said. She'd been willing to try anyway. What else could that mean? She must know that one day, I would probably infect her. But she'd kept trying. I had pushed her away, and she'd fought. I'll risk it.

I lean over and hit PLAY on my answering machine. After skipping past the most recent messages, I find Nell's and copy down her number on the back of my hand. I am driven. She must know that it will happen one day. But she wants me anyway. I get the phonebook from the kitchen. Luckily, she is listed. I copy that down too and grab my coat.

I don't want to dream about her anymore.

I drive quickly. Her apartment isn't hard to find. It is ten to five in the evening. She will most likely be home. I smile, just like an idiot in those romantic films. I'm not going to let anything get between us. I am racing to Nell, taking this chance.

I stand at her door, my breath misting before me. I think about her smile, and her hair, and her slim fingers touching my arm. I ring the doorbell.

When she answers, the music in my head stops, the fantasy bubble around my head popped. Nell doesn't smile. Her eyes study me, protective. "I knew that it would be you."

I don't know what to say. "I knew you would."

She folds her arms in front of herself, unimpressed by my attempt at wit. "…I was thinking about you the other day."

"Me too." I hadn't realized quite how much I had missed her until now. I drop my guard and sincerely ask, "How are you?"

She doesn't smile. "Why are you here, Essy?"

"Can I come inside?"

She hesitates. "Sure."

I walk past her. The place is warm and cozy, a yellow glow coming from a lamp in the corner. The sun is setting. Nell shuts the door and sits on the couch, reaching for her mug of tea.

"Nell," I say to her. "I made a mistake."

She looks up at me from the brim of her cup.

"I was scared. I couldn't even imagine risking hurting you. When I heard, I was sure that I'd already given it to you."

She is studying the coffee table, but listening.

"I was already so torn up over it, thinking I'd done that to you." I sat on the floor, at her feet so she'd see me. "And when you were okay, I just couldn't imagine actually giving it to you. It was too hard. But it's so much worse, now. Not being with you is worse. It's too much."

She sighs. "Essy…"

"Yes?"

"I have a boyfriend."

What?

"His name's Ryan. I'm sorry."

I shake my head. "When… did you start…"

"About a three weeks ago. I'm sorry."

I shake my head again. "Don't be. It's not your fault. After the way I treated you…"

"I'm not dating him because of you, Essy. So stop making it about you."

"It's not. It's about you, Nell. I love you."

She stares at the coffee table, but I know she hears me. I sit up on my knees, closer to her. I put my hands on her knees. The touch brings her eyes back to face me.

"Don't, Essy."

I slide my hands to her waist. She pulls back, but doesn't stop me. "I love you." I am inches away from her face. She backs up against the couch.

"It's too late. Ryan-"

"Would you 'risk it' for him?" I hover next to her, pulling her hips toward me.

"I…"

"Do you love him?"

"But…" She puts her hands on my arms, holding me back.

"Does he love you?" Her lips are in front of me, her mouth hanging open. She has nothing to say. I kiss her. She kisses me back, and her hands clutch my arms, pull me closer. "Is it safe?" she asks.

I don't want to do it, then. A tug in my gut brings the word active to my head, and I'm afraid she can see the lie in my eyes. "It's safe."

She sits up, giving in to me. I smile through my kiss.

Afterwards, she is all laughs and smiles again. The Nell I know; that I've fallen in love with.

As I stand as the door, I ask her, "What are you going to do about Ryan?"

She sighs, "I suppose I have to break up with him."

I smile. I know I shouldn't smile at others' misfortune, but in this case I can't help myself.

"He'll be okay. We weren't too serious anyway," Nell assures me.

"Will you call me later?"

"Yes," she says.

"Do you have class tomorrow?"

"At three."

"Do you want to come over afterwards?

She smiles and kisses me. "It's a date."

I can't explain how I justify what I did to her. I shouldn't have slept with her while the virus was active. But for several weeks, everything is so perfect that I let myself believe I haven't infected her. After all, the doctors did say it's harder to contract it froma woman than from a man. Not that I am really concerned.

She comes by an hour later than she'd said she would. It's eight, and I ordered the food already, because I know what she wants anyway. Every Thursday we order in and watch a movie at my house. I am waiting on the couch, staring blankly at the TV, a little impatient, when she opens the door. She glances at me, and I see the wet frustration in her eyes. I know before she says anything.

"My gynecologist called me today."

I play along. I know, but I pretend I don't. I've been waiting for this to happen. "What's wrong? I sound genuinely alarmed and befuddled. Sometimes, I hate how good of a liar I am.

Nell sits down on the couch next to me. "She said my last pap smear is abnormal." Her voice wobbles, losing balance. She clutches the couch cushion beneath her. "She knows we've been sleeping together, and of your…disease. So she went ahead and ran a test."

"Is it…?"

She winces, closing her eyes. She is choking up, getting ready and trying not to cry. I put an arm around her. "It came back positive," she moans, and the dam breaks. I know she hates me, and wants to blame me. I expect her to. I keep waiting for it to happen, for her to start screaming. But she holds on to me tighter. I wonder for the first time if she knows that I meant for this to happen. It's the only way I know she'll stay with me.

Nell is depressed for a week or two, and reminds me of myself to the point that it is slightly frightening. But when she came to terms wit it, she seemed to be okay.

"I guess it doesn't really matter," she says in bed on night. I'd almost drifted off when she spoke. "I have you. I'll be with you for the rest of my life." She says it in acceptance; she has no choice. "That way, I won't be able to give it to anyone else." I feel the blame then, and for a moment, I regret what I did. I turn on my side, and look at her silhouette. She stares at the ceiling.

"I'm sorry, Nell." I can give her that at least. She will not know if to be any different than the truth. "I thought we'd be safe."

"Me too. I thought I'd always be safe."

She comes back to me eventually. For a while I can't see Nell in her expression, and she is frozen to me. The first time we go to bed together after she found out, her eyes stare vacantly, and she responds dully to my touches. She goes through the motions, and it frustrates me. I'd known she's be upset, but I'd always thought she'd find comfort in me, the way I'd found it in her.

Our one-year anniversary comes, and I attempt to give her a romantic evening. She smiles, and eats the dinner I made. She says it's delicious. She says she loves me. She is lying. We go to bed. I am kissing her, but it is the same as kissing her picture. I stop and angrily get up.

"What's wrong?" Nell asks. But she doesn't mean it.

I am sitting with my back to her, shutting her out. "How long are you going to hold it against me? I didn't mean to give it to you, Nell. Don't you know how much it hurts me that I did? This is exactly why I tried to run away. This is what I was most afraid of."

"Essy," she whimpers, sounding too much like my brother.

"I knew it would be hard, Nell. But I didn't think you'd blame me like this. I didn't know what I was doing." I remember when that had been true, and tap that feeling.

"It's not your fault, Essy…"

"But it is!" I shout. Pain masks my impatience. "I just never thought…" tears come. "…I never thought you wouldn't forgive me."

Nell comes around to the foot of the bed and takes my wet face in her hands. She kisses my cheeks. "But I do." She kisses my eyelids, kisses my fingers individually. "I'm sorry. I was so wrapped up in it, I forgot you." She kisses my lips, and I let her. After a moment, I kiss her back, and I know she's come back to me. "I do forgive you, Essy. I love you. We are safe. We're together."

"Nell…"

"Essy, I forgive you. It's not your fault."

"I'm so sorry."

"No, shhh." She wraps her arms around me, and lays me back on the bed. I put my fingers in her hair. "I love you," she assures.

We are together, we are safe.

She is more passionate than I can remember, and we stay up past the sunrise. When she sleeps, I watch her, and can see that even in sleep she can't blame me. She loves me. She always will. And I can't, even if I try to, regret what I did. We are happy now. I know that's what she wants.