Authors: Lauren Blakely
hen we return
to the apartment, I grab her sleek silver laptop from the wooden coffee table. It's late on Saturday, but I don't care. “I'm off tomorrow and so are you. There are no excuses. Show me. Let's see who's got you swiping right or whatever you call it on your dating site.”
I sink into our comfy couch, settling into one of the millions of pillows that have multiplied like bunnies thanks to Ms. Hammer's pillow-philia.
She grabs a hair tie from the table and loops her light brown strands into a knot on her head. A few pieces fall around her face, framing her cheeks with pink strands. Her lips are glossy, and it occurs to me she must have reapplied lipstick at some point. Maybe when I made a pit stop in the little boy's room at the diner. I'm sure I would have noticed her slicking some on. I would have watched, liking the way she looked when her lips formed an
. I linger too long on that letter and all its delicious possibilities. How she'd look when her mouth fell open in pleasure when she called out myâ
Shake it off, buddy.
I remind myself of my special talentâseparating feelings and thoughts. Because appreciating her lips doesn't mean I want to kiss them. And it doesn't mean I can't be her lookout.
“You really want to see the guys?” she asks, parking herself next to me and tucking her feet underneath her.
“Hell, yeah.” I can't let her be Damiened again. I guarantee I would have been able to tell he was the kind of asshat who'd do that shit. No disrespect to Josie, but chicks can't always tell. I speak dude perfectly, and I'm going to translate for her to make sure she gets what she wants and deserves in life.
She flips open the screen, toggles over to her dating site, and clicks on a profile picture. The guy looks to be about forty, and he smiles like a realtor.
“This is Bob. Apparently, he messaged me tonight.”
I rub my palms together. “All right. What does Bobby boy have to say?”
She opens the message on the site and reads aloud, “Hey there, Baker Girl. I like your pic. You're totes cute. We have a lot in common. I like books, too.”
I stare her down, bring my hands to my armpits, and sway my shoulders back and forth like an ape. “Me like books. Books are good.”
“At least he didn't start with asking me what kind of sex I like,” she says, like that makes his opening line less Neanderthalic.
I shake my head. “Allow me to the do the honors.” I swipe him closed for her. “What else have we got?”
She peers at the screen, pointing to a message from FireTrev. “How about Trevor? He's a firefighter.”
I read the tagline on his profile. “Baby, can I light your fire?” I arch a brow. “Swiped.”
She grabs my arm. “Is that any worse than you saying, âthe doctor is in'?”
“One, I'm not on an online dating site, so I wouldn't be saying that. And two, no. Which is why if I ever said that on an online dating site, you should throat-punch me.”
Her lips twitch mischievously. “With a crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e torch?”
“Consider it your throat-punching device of torture when I exceed the maximum acceptable level of douchery.”
“There are actually acceptable levels?”
I shrug. “Look, you can't expunge douchiness completely. It's like a cockroach. It'll survive a nuclear explosion. It's a very tenacious quality in a man. I find it best to accept that there are levels of douchiness one can live with, usually manifesting as cockiness, confidence, or bravado.” I narrow my eyes. “You gonna be okay with that harsh reality?”
She nods, intense as a soldier. “Those seem an allowable standard.”
I tip my chin to the screen and inch closer to her. “What else have we got?”
Grabbing a cranberry red pillow between us, she tosses it on the back of the couch. Interesting. She's made more room. She pats the vacated spot, so I move closer as she clicks on a new message. The profile pic is a too-suave image of a dark-haired man in a sharp suit. “That screams I-got-my-profile-pic-from-a-stock-photo-site.”
“Probably. Let's see what he says.”
The message fills the screen as she reads, “I'm going to ask you a series of questions. Here's the first. Would you ever date a guy who likes to wear your panties?”
I snap my gaze to her. “Is this shit for real?”
She laughs. “Yes. Sadly, it is.”
“This is ridiculous,” I sneer. I'm this close to swiping when an evil idea lands in my brain. “Can I reply?”
“What are you going to say?”
“Do you trust me?”
The look in her eyes says
. “Yes. But . . .”
I crack my knuckles. “Allow me to take the wheel.”
She grabs my arm. “You're not going to write anything crazy, are you?”
“Nothing that won't amuse you.” I hover my fingers above the keys then type, speaking the words out loud: “Sure, but only if he wears my panties on his head. To work.”
She clasps her hand over her mouth, laughing. I take that as a sign to keep this shit up.
The next question from Captain Suave is: “What is the most exciting type of intimate video for you to watch?”
Hell if I'm not eager to know what gets her off, but that's not the point. I write back to the suit dude: “The kind your mother stars in.”
Josie laughs loudly, then I read his next question. “How often do you come every week?”
I turn to her, and even though I'm dying for her weekly orgasm count more than Suave in a Suit can know, now isn't the time. I reply with, “Great question. I'd love to answer it, but maybe we could start the interview with some simpler questions. The last book you read, what kind of cereal you like, do you wear socks?”
The guy must have just come online and seen her newest message first, because his reply to that one is swift.
Catcher in the Rye
. I don't like cereal. Tube socks.”
I slam the machine closed and give her a pointed look. “
Catcher in the Rye
is high school required reading, and if that's the last book he read, God help us. Plus, tube socks are a deal breaker. And you can't date someone who doesn't like cereal. There's no excuse for that.”
She crosses her heart. “I solemnly swear to uphold the love of cereal.” She sets the laptop on the table. “Okay, so we've clearly established tonight that there are lots of fish to wade through, that the love of certain breakfast foods is inviolate, and that a woman needs to allow for a teeny amount of douchery in her men. Correct?”
I nod sharply. “You are correct.”
“I'm learning,” she says, then tucks a strand of pink-streaked hair behind her ear, her silver bracelet sliding down her arm. “But what about you?”
I frown in confusion. “What about me?”
“Why are you so against online dating? Is it because of Adele? What happened with her, exactly? I've never known why it ended.”
Things with her ended two years ago. Before Africa.
With her sharp wit and brilliant mind, Adele and I hit it off instantly as residents together, becoming fast friends. Then we became more. She was smart, outgoing, and had the best bedside manner. And by bedside manner, I do mean bedside manner.
Redheaded and leggy and wildly sexual, Adele had seemed like the perfect woman for me. She also liked to experiment.
“Let's just say the leasing agent wasn't the first woman to invite me to a threesome,” I tell Josie.
She stares at me expectantly and makes a quick, rolling gesture with her hand as if to say
tell me, tell me.
“She thought one of the nurses, a brunette named Simone, was quite hot, and she asked me if I'd consider a threesome. Honestly, that wasn't my thing. I'm a one-woman kind of guy.”
“No interest in a threesome at all?”
I shake my head. “Nope. Don't want it. Don't need it. Not my cup of tea or brandy or Jack Daniels. But she wanted to. It was her fantasy, and I was crazy about her. I wanted to give it to her because it was what she wanted.”
Josie leans closer. “Was that hard, servicing two women at the same time?”
I scoff. “Nope. Because I didn't.”
“Didn't do it?”
“Didn't take care of them both. They took care of each other. I was kind of the third wheel.”
She furrows her brow. “That's . . . weird?”
I shrug. “A little, maybe.”
“So you split up because of a weird threesome?”
I shake my head. “No. I don't care about one weird sexual encounter. I mean, we're all bound to have that, right?”
“What bothered me was that Adele, my best friend at the time, went on to spend the next several months having an emotional affair with Simone.”
Josie's jaw drops.
“I don't know if it was more or less devastating than if she'd been physically cheating, too. All I know is when she broke up with me, she told me she was in love with Simone and had been
with her since the threesome.”
Her jaw snaps shut, as she whispers, “That is rough.”
“Yeah, and it wasn't a secret around the hospital. Everyone knows each other's business. And some of the docs said, âDon't let it bother youâyou don't have a pussy, so you never stood a chance.'” That was the way a few of my buds had tried to downplay the split. “Fine, she likes women, and she figured it out with me. I'm man enough not to freak out and think I turned her gay. That's not the issue. But just because I didn't have the right equipment,” I say, my eyes straying to my crotch, “didn't make the breakup hurt less.”
Josie runs a hand down my arm. “It's not about the equipment. It's not about whether you stood a chance with her. It's about this. Your heart,” she says, placing her palm on my chest. Her touch feels good, and all my instincts tell me to grab her hand and hold it tight to me. Because I like the way it feels when her hands are on me.
“Exactly. But there was this sense among our colleagues that it should only have hurt if she screwed someone who had a dick. Who cares? That's not the issue. The issue is we were friends, then we were together, and then she fell in love with someone else and was involved with that person while she was with me. It doesn't hurt any less simply because I could never”âI sketch air quotesâ“compete. And what sucked the most was that I missed her in my life.”
That's how I learned the hard way that taking friendships to another level only results in heartache.
“I'd miss you if you weren't in my life,” Josie says softly.
My muscles tighten with that fresh reminder to keep all thoughts of Josie on
levelâthe friendship one.
Her eyes roam over me, settling on my shoulders. “You're so tense,” she says softly, then shifts her body, moving behind me, nudging me away from the back of the couch. And before I know it, she's rubbing my shoulders.
It's totally unexpected to have Josie's hands on me. She's comforting me, even though I'm not hurt anymore. But still, she seems to want to, and holy hell, is she ever talented at this. She digs her fingers into my shoulders, and it feels really fucking good. So good I groan.
“Jesus, Josie. You have great hands.”
“It comes from kneading dough,” she says, and I laugh then lean back into her, resting against her chest as she rubs my shoulders. I'm a hedonist, I'm a cat, I'm a complete pleasure-taker right now. But Josie's hands are magic, and I have no choice but to succumb to them.
“Your shoulders are tight, sweetie,” she says, her breath soft, tickling my neck.
We've both used terms of endearment for each other tonight. What the hell is that about?
But when her thumbs dig into my muscles, I don't think anymore. I shut off my mind and give in to the extraordinary feeling of her hands on me. I moan and murmur, “Feels so good.”
I can sense her shifting behind me. Moving her face closer. Her lips are near my hair. “Good. Let me make you feel better.”
She makes me feel worlds better, even though I didn't really feel bad. But I feel spectacular as she works my shoulders. It's better than good. It's good everywhere, including below the MasonâDixon line, where there's a huge statue pointing out how much better than good this is.
It's a turn-on.
With my eyes closed and her hands massaging me, my mind floats away, picturing her sliding her hands down my chest, reaching for the bottom of my T-shirt, tugging it over my head.
My dick hardens more as I imagine her return routeâthose soft, strong hands playing across my abs, traveling up my stomach to my pecs, exploring me.
I let out a breath. It sounds like a turned-on groan. Because I don't stop the fantasy there. As she touches me, I imagine her hands gliding into my hair, her lips brushing across my neck, her scent everywhere.
And then I see myself doing the next logical thing.
The only thing.
Flipping around, sliding her under me, pinning her wrists above her head.
And fucking her.
Even though I'm only her friend, even though I'm keeping it on the level, all signs in my head and body point to a different agenda.
Josie Hammer turns me on, and that's a big fucking problem.
few days later
, I find a clear plastic bag from her bakery on the coffee table. There's an assortment of mixed nuts insideâpecans, walnuts, and peanuts, too. Dangling from a yellow ribbon is a notecard.
again for coming to the rescue this past weekend. What would I do without a nut lover like you?
and save the card, then pop some nuts in my mouth on the way to work.
he next few
weeks at the hospital pass in a blur of gunshot wounds, chest pain, shower falls, drug overdoses, boiling water spills, and an apple where the sun doesn't shine.
The man who became intimately acquainted with the fruit told me he fell on a basket of Granny Smiths while sweeping the floors. “I like to keep them around, easily accessible. Apples are good for you,” he'd said, while explaining away his . . . predicament.
In his case, the apple a day didn't keep the doctor away.
There was also an afternoon shift when the paramedics rushed in an incredibly polite British man who had collided with a wooden post at a construction site. “I seem to have acquired a splinter,” he'd said, of the half-foot-long piece of wood in his ribs.
Today, we encountered a surprise baby.
When I return home, I tell Josie the story as she slides a lasagna dish out of the oven to check on it. I lean against the doorframe of the tiny kitchen, savoring the aroma of her cooking. “The girl was eighteen. She came in complaining of food poisoning. When we informed her she was pregnant and dilated to ten centimeters, she told us she was going to sue us for defamation of character.”
“Well, naturally. Being told you're pregnant by a doctor is complete and absolute grounds for a courtroom trial, I'm sure,” she says as she closes the oven door. “Five more minutes for this.”
“Then she started pushing, and when the baby came out, her first words were, âIt's not mine. It needs to go back to its mama. Send it back to its real mom.'”
Josie frowns. “Awww. Poor baby.”
I nod. “Yup.”
She tilts her head. “Do you think she just didn't want to be pregnant and was trying to deny it, or was she mentally unstable?”
“Hard to say. The girl's not the first one to come into the ER saying she didn't know she was pregnant.”
“But if she doesn't want the kid, what happens to the baby?”
I shrug as I grab a grape from a glass bowl on the counter and pop it into my mouth. “Don't know. That's for the hospital social worker to figure out.”
“I wish there was something we could do for the baby,” she says softly.
“It's going to be fine. The baby is healthy,” I say, since that's really all I know.
Worry is etched onto her features as her brow furrows. “But how do you know it's going to be fine?”
Her question gives me pause. Makes me think. “I don't entirely know, but I
that the appropriate people will help both of them.”
She sighs heavily and shakes her head. “But for a second, just think about what happens next. What is life going to be like for either one of them?”
I shrug, half wishing I could give her the answer she wants, and half wishing she'd stop asking. I don't always like to contemplate what happens next to my patients.
isn't always pretty.
isn't always good. I do all I can do in the exam room. I can't start marinating on the pieces of everyone's life that I have zero control over.
She peers at the clock on the stove. “I can't help it. I feel bad for both of them.”
I hold up my hands in surrender. “She's going to be fine.”
She shoots me a skeptical stare. “Who? The baby? The mother?”
I stare at her back. “Both, I presume.”
Her voice escalates in a mix of sadness and irritation. “You can't just presume that.”
I nod. “Yes. I can. It's part of the job.”
She shakes her head and knits her brow. “I don't get it. How can you separate everything so easily? How can you say she'll be fine when you don't actually know?”
I take a breath and call upon my best cool demeanor. Josie's getting emotional. She's becoming attached to patients that aren't even hers. I need to talk down the Florence Nightingale in her. “Hey,” I say calmly, setting a hand on her arm. “We have people at the hospital who can help. We have a great social worker. We'll do everything we can. The only way I could assist her medically was to focus on the physical. Now there are others who will help her, okay?”
She draws a huge breath, like she's gulping up oxygen after being deprived. When she nods as if she's settled, I'm ready to write this off as done, but then she slides past me. “Excuse me,” she mumbles, her voice hitching, then she's off and seconds later the bathroom door slams closed.
“Fuck,” I mutter.
And I wait. And I wait. And I wait.
When the timer beeps on the oven, I half figure that Josie's internal baker clock will ding and summon her from the bathroom. But after sixty seconds, she's still MIA, so I grab a potholder, pull out the lasagna, and set it on a cooling rack. Staring at it for a minute, I decide on a game plan. I don't know what Josie's upset about, but I can only fix what I can fix.
The rest of dinner.
I hunt around for a bottle of wine, grab a merlot, and unscrew the cork. When I find two glasses, I set them on the coffee table in the living room that doubles as our dining room table. I add cloth napkinsâthe only kind we use, since Josie's taught me that paper ones are wasteful to the environment. When I return to the kitchen, I grab two sunshine-yellow plates, then a spatula. I serve a chunk of lasagna for her, then one for me.
As I set the plates on the table along with forks, she rounds the corner, a wad of tissue in her hands. “I'm so sorry,” she says, her voice thin with tears. Her expression is soft now and apologetic. “I didn't mean to push so hard about a patient of yours.”
“Don't think twice about it. But . . . are you okay?” I step closer to her.
“It's not you. I just . . .” She swipes at her cheeks with the tissues. “I just had a long day, and we ran out of seven-layer bars earlier than we'd advertised for the Tuesday special, and this customer came in and threw a complete fit that we were out, and said she was going to”âshe stops to adopt a bitchy voiceâ“ârip us a new one' on Yelp. And I know it's a little thing in the scheme of all the big things, but I've worked so hard to build a good business after I took over for my mom, and sometimes all it takes is one bad review to shred you. So I've been waiting all day for the other shoe to drop, and on top of that my friend Lily's boyfriend is acting like a total dick, and I feel bad for her because she still likes him, but he's so not worth her time and I want her to realize it. And so I was making lasagna to try to get my mind off it all.” Her words are tumbling out like she's in a confessional. “And then you come home, and you're so good at separating everything, and I just can't do that. I'm terrible at that.” Another tear slips down her cheek.
I take a tissue and wipe it away. “You don't have to deal with things the way I deal with things. You're you, and you should deal with them as you need to.”
She takes a deep breath and nods. “I wish I could just shut things off. Like you can.”
“It's a blessing and a curse,” I joke.
“It's a gift,” she says emphatically.
“Well, look. I have to separate myself to some degree. I can't react to things the way a patient would, because if I did then I wouldn't be very good at taking care of them, right?”
She nods as I wrap an arm around her and guide her to the couch.
“I'm sorry I gave you a hard time,” she whispers.
I shake my head. “Ha. That was hardly a hard time. And if you do decide to give me a hard time, I can handle it.” I puff out my chest and hit it. “Steel, baby. I'm steel. I can take it.”
She smiles, a rueful little grin.
“But look. Don't get frustrated that emotions spill over for you. It's who you are, and it's part of what makes you . . .”âI pause, looking for the right wordsâ“one of the most amazing people I know.”
She swats my shoulder. “Oh stop.”
“Hey, you are,” I say. Then I take a beat and quirk up my lips. “Honestly, though, I thought you were just having your period.”
“You ass,” she says.
“I totally am an ass. But this ass served dinner.” I gesture to the meal. “Dine with me?”
“Why, I thought you'd never ask.”
As we dig into the lasagna, my belly thanks her. I point with my fork to the plate. “This is the best thing I've ever tasted.”
“You say that about everything I make.”
“And I mean it about everything you make.”
“Thank you,” she says with a smile. “Oh, and in case you were wondering, my period was last week, and you didn't even notice.”
“Damn, you're stealthy in the hormonal reaction department.”
She nudges her shoulder into mine. “Sorry again. Do you forgive me?”
I meet her eyes, and for a second I'm tempted to run my hand through her hair, to brush my lips to hers, to kiss her softly to reassure her that we're all good.
Then I snap out of it.
Even so, I wish I could tell her the truth. That it's getting harder for me to pull off this trick. That she challenges my ability to compartmentalize like no one and nothing ever has. All my instincts tell me to kiss her, to touch her, to take her to bed.
But man can't let instincts rule him.
Mind over man, I remind myself.
The good news is when she checks Yelp again that night, her bakery still has a sterling average. I tell her the woman was all talk. When she kisses me good nightâon the cheekâI clench my fists as a reminder to keep it all in check. As she turns on her heel and walks into her bedroom, my eyes don't stray from her, and that's the problem. It's become all too clear that these separate drawers are getting messier every day.
I'm not sure how to keep them closed.
But I vow to try.