Together – The First ‘I Love You’

Vanessa pulled off her shirt and looked at herself in the mirror, debating whether she should leave her bra on or take it off. She folded her shirt and put it at the end of Rick’s bed. She shook her head and picked it back up, shaking it out and tossing it haphazardly at the dresser. She kicked her shoes off in the direction of the door then crossed to set them neatly side-by-side, out of the way. Finally, she gently kicked one over and nudged it a little further away from the other. She let her skirt drop to the floor next to the bed and crawled between the sheets in her panties and bra.

Removing a balled up t-shirt from beneath a pillow, she settled comfortably in and debated how she wanted to pose herself for when she heard Rick coming. Blanket up to her neck? No, that wasn’t sexy. It would make it look like she had something to hide and not in a good way. Blanket covering her bra? Or not? Should she lose the bra altogether?

Vanessa looked at the clock on the bedside table. 1:30 am. Rick wouldn’t get off work until 2, and he probably wouldn’t get back to his apartment until quarter after or even half-past. She laid back so that she couldn’t see the clock and tried to guess how much time had passed since she last looked, attempting to stretch the time between peeks and will the minutes to pass faster.

When she felt herself fading at 1:58, she searched for something to occupy her attention and keep her awake. Leaning over the edge of the mattress, her hand clutched around in the space under the bed as she struggled to stay between the sheets warmed by her body heat. All she found was an old Playboy, its pages ruffled with age and she was afraid to imagine what else. Gingerly putting it back, she debated venturing to the living room where her workbag was hanging out with her purse on the floor next to the sofa. She could probably make it through the spelling tests before Rick made it home, but given how tired she was, she didn’t trust her eyes to see straight enough for that. The book reports would only make it harder to stay awake. The history quizzes would have been fine but they were still in a pile on her desk at work, waiting for Jimmy Flenderson to make his up at recess on Monday.

With each minute that passed, the bed became warmer and harder to leave; the pillow became more inviting and her eyelids heavier. At 2:43 she lost the battle and sleep triumphed.

When Rick got home at 3:27, he found Vanessa in his bed, sprawled on her stomach, her arms draped across the pillow. He smiled and tried not to wake her but stumbled on her shoe in the dark and cursed loudly.

Her head popped up but quickly found its place on the pillow again. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” she mumbled.

He stripped down to his boxers quickly and quietly, leaving his clothes where they fell and crawled into bed beside her. “There was a fight at the bar and the cops showed up. It took forever.”

“I was gonna surprise you with sex but I’m too tired right now.”

He chuckled and settled in. “I’m too tired too so don’t worry about it.” He rolled onto his side so that he was facing her but on her stomach with her head turned away from him, there didn’t seem to be a good way to bring her closer to him.

“We can have morning sex instead.” The pillow muffled most of what she was saying.

He laughed quietly and reached out to brush some hair away from her cheek, stroking her shoulder blades and unknowingly sending a shiver down her spine. “You’re an awesome girlfriend, you know that?”

“I know,” she sighed.

He listened to her breathing deepen and find a settled rhythm. He smiled in the dark, feeling exhausted but also happier than he had felt all day. Vanessa had a way of making him laugh when he needed it most, usually unintentionally. Actually, when she tried to cheer him up on purpose, it didn’t work and they would end up arguing about stupid things. But it did show how much she cared. These fights, if they could even be called fights, never carried over into anything else. They were an excuse to yell but there was no deep feeling behind them, no destructive force.

He didn’t want to go there but his train of thought led him to his ex. They had never fought about anything. At least, not verbally. Their disagreements had always festered in silence until they created an infectious passive aggressive battle that would spread to encompass every argument or minor exchange they’d had, even those presumably resolved or dropped.

Looking at Vanessa he wondered how he could have put up with Natalie for so long, gone back to her so many times. But he had loved her. Or that’s what he’d always told himself. He wasn’t sure anymore because what he’d felt for Natalie didn’t match up with what he felt now for Vanessa and what he felt for her, even at their worst, was better than anything he remembered feeling for Natalie.

The full impact of his sleepy epiphany sent a shot of adrenaline into his system. He was awake and it would be a while longer before he could settle his mind and his nerves enough to allow for sleep. The hairs on his arms and legs seemed calibrated to calculate the exact distance between his body and her sleeping form. As each breath moved the sheets a miniscule amount, those hairs collected and transmitted the data for reassessment and adjustment. He watched the movement in her back as her expanding and contracting rib cage strained against the black straps of the bra she had decided to leave on. He wanted her to be away with him but was also glad that she was asleep. The realization that he was in love with her didn’t mean he needed to tell her right away. He wasn’t sure their relationship was ready for that step.

Still, the urge to say it aloud, to hear it echo in his ears and make it real, was growing stronger.

“Vanessa? Are you awake?” he whispered.

There was no break in the rhythm of her breathing and her sigh reassured him that she was sleeping.

“I love you, Vanessa.” He wanted to reach over and touch her but not wanting to disturb her, he rolled over onto his back and tried to calm himself into submission instead. He felt his body relaxing gradually and was content when his system received another jolt.

“I love you too, Rick.” Vanessa picked her head up from the pillow to turn it towards him. Her expression was pleased and slightly flushed, though it was impossible to appreciate these details fully in the darkened room.

“You were awake this whole time?” His whisper was so loud and close, he was nearly shouting in her face. “Why didn’t you say anything when I asked if you were awake?”

A defensive expression replaced her momentary look of contentment. “I did.” She was very much awake now. It had only taken a moment for his words to sink in and her eyes to fly open as the rest of her body had stiffened, paralyzed mostly from shock and a little from terror. She had debated pretending to be asleep since she was pretty sure he thought she was. But the idea of facing him in the morning, knowing what he felt and that he didn’t know she knew was… well, not unbearable but uncomfortable. She could feel a film of sweat break out across her skin as she lay there agonizing, each passing moment making it more awkward for her to acknowledge having heard his confession. She’d listened to him breathing on his side of the bed and relaxed. Maybe he was already asleep himself. Regardless, if he knew how he felt about her, she also knew how she felt about him and was ready to say it aloud to more than just the steering wheel.

Of course, she hadn’t anticipated this reaction. Silence if he actually was asleep, of course. A cuddle or maybe some spooning if he was awake. But she certainly hadn’t expected any kind of verbal offensive.

“What are you talking about? You didn’t say anything.”

“Yes, I did. I asked, ‘hmm?’”

“No, you didn’t. You might have sighed, but you didn’t say ‘hmm’ or ‘huh’ or anything like that.”

“I did too, and I raised my eyebrows like I always do when you ask me something. Like this, see,” she demonstrated in an over-exaggerated manner made even more comical by the way the light from the digital clock fell across her face.

“You were facing the other way,” he said, chuckling. He was too tired to stay mad, especially when he wasn’t really mad. He was mostly just embarrassed. “How am I supposed to tell you’re raising your eyebrows when I’m staring at the back of your head?”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t something move back there when you use your face muscles? Something in my neck or hair.” She was relaxed and tired again, a combination that was making her giddy.

“Well, I guess I should have been looking to see if your hair moved for a non-verbal indication that you were alert and interested in what I’d said.”

“I also ‘hmmed,’ you can’t forget that. Because if you do one without the other, it’s open for interpretation but used together, I wouldn’t necessarily say alert but definitely open to receiving information.”

“Clearly.” They both laughed and shifted so that they were one their sides, facing each other.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Rick leaned into Vanessa and kissed her. He could feel her smiling as his hand traveled up her back in search of her bra’s clasp. She whispered, “This one fastens in the front.”

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