For Monica.

For Kitten, on her 19th birthday. Happy Birthday, Daneoraaaaaaaaange.

Leather And Irish Springs Soap

Six months ago, I had woken up in a bed I didn't belong in, in the arms of a girl whose arms I never wanted to be in again. I turned over and kissed her cheek, and remembered how it was she could never love me. And I ran my fingers through her hair, that yellow-orange hue that covered her head, and I gazed around the room. The sunlight set the furniture aglow, and a Persian cat that I thought should be named Hecuba, but was actually named Vincent stretched itself lazily across my black jeans on the neutral gray carpet.

And it was in that one moment of time, I realized I didn't belong there. I realized I never would belong there.

And for some reason, that made me very sad.

And I picked up my jeans, making the cat mew in indignation as I stole its newfound bed. And I stared at the girl who I once wanted to love me, and who said she never could, and who had seduced me the night before. I thought how she looked like an angel when she was sleeping, but then, I realized she didn't. The only girl who had ever looked like an angel when they were sleeping was Gabi.

And so this raises another question. Why the hell am I parking my car outside the house where Gabi lives now? Why did I come all this way for her?

Because she asked you to, this quiet voice in my head tells me and I have to admit that it's right. I came here because she wanted me here.

The house isn't exactly what I expected the first time I'd seen it. It's just a quiet red brick house with a porch and well, I guess, I expected something more artsy. That's how Gabi was… it made sense her parents would be too.

I wrap my knuckles on an oak door that towers above me, dwarfing me, when I'm not short to begin with. And then with a sweep open, there she is. There's Gabi standing there, smiling at me. And she's everything I remembered she was, with her brilliant white smile and her hair… I have to fight myself from touching her hair. It's still so long, and it's brilliant shining black, and she's still streaking it with colors making her the violet eyed girl with the hair like a Jackson Pollock painting… My Jackson Pollock girl, all over again.

I want to touch her.

But I don't.

"Toni!" she exclaims because as one would expect, she's happy to see me. I'm happy to see her too.

"Gabi," I say, but in a more quiet voice, because I was never as loud and exuberant as she was. She wraps her arms around me, an embrace that shouldn't be as customary as it feels like. I don't want us to let go.

But she does.

I follow her into then house, glancing around at the simple way everything is furnished. It's cozy enough, lived in sure, but it's not… it's not something Gabi would have chosen for herself. Kind of amazes me this is where she came from, to be perfectly honest.

"Mom and Dad aren't home yet," she explains quickly. "They had to go pick up some woodchips for the yard. They should be home in an hour or so, though." She shrugs. "Are you hungry?"

"Kind of," I manage and suddenly she's leading me towards a kitchen now, and setting me down in a chair, like she might have once in another life-age. But she wouldn't have then. She'd have led me in and tossed two pieces of bread and a jar of peanut butter at me and said she'd never be some man's wife. She'd have laughed too.

So what's different now?

-=-+-=-

Gabi peered around the room with an interested look. "So this is where the great Toni Fenwick sleeps?" she asked, grinning. I shrugged.

"I get by." Gabi looked at a small bookcase in the corner of the room.

"I've always thought you could figure out what someone was really like by what was on their bookcase," she explained.

"You won't find much here," I told her honestly. There really wasn't anything to find.

Gabi ran her fingers along the bindings of the books and read the titles silently. "You never stop working, do you?" she said. "Ever?"

"What do you mean?" I replied curiously. "Because I read books?"

"Every book on this bookshelf has a reason for being there," Gabi asserted knowingly. "You never quit. Never ever."

"That's not quite true," I told her. "Sometimes I read for fun. I like non-fiction. That's not work… it's fun. And there's plenty of fiction on there."

"Tony, right next to your Harry Potter books, you have Understanding Harry Potter. You never stop. Everything on there has a reason for being there. It's all relevant to your studies."

"So I thought Harry had some interesting philosophical undertones," I shot back. "That doesn't mean anything. You're over analyzing."

Gabi grinned, "Nope. Most of your fiction are all classic novels. Catcher in the Rye, Tale of Two Cities. Your other fiction is all…" She scrunched up her forehead, as though looking for the right word. "Adult people stuff. None of this is just here for fun."

"So what are you getting at?" I demanded. "Are you saying I'm boring or something?"

Gabi stood up and turned to face me. "I'm saying you're boring. I'm saying you overwork yourself. I'm saying you're an appalling intellect who doesn't understand the world outside of an elite academia. I'm saying you're annoyingly well-read. You need to laugh more. I'm saying a lot of things about you. Now what are you thinking about me?"

"I'm thinking you're the most infuriating woman I've ever met. Bookshelves? Next you'll be reading my Tarot and examining my palms." I glared at the woman next to me. "I mean, you're judging me on my books! You're thinking I'm just some bookish nerd and all sorts of other things and that you probably find me incredibly dull and-"

My words were cut off by her lips.

"I'm saying you're perfect, butch. But don't get used to hearing it."

I wrapped my hand in Gabi's hair and smiled.

.=.+.=.

"Hey, Bug," Gabi says, glancing up as her kid brother comes through the kitchen door. Bug was fifteen, with the same black hair Gabi had, and his father's strong looks. Adolescence however made him tall and gangly, as though he wasn't quite ready to carry those looks. He was as tall as me, making him tower over the rest of the family.  His father had never quite forgiven him for growing taller than he was.

"Hi," I wave slightly from the table. He grins.

"Hi, Toni." He walks over to the cupboards and pulled out a glass. "How's it going?"

"It's going," I reply. "How's the girlfriend?" His ears blush a bright red and he shrugs with a feigned nonchalance

"It's all right," he tells me quickly, as he pours his glass of orange juice, forming small tsunamis in the glass.

"Woody's coming over for dinner tonight," Gabi informs him.

"Why?" he asks, his voice making it clear that a dinner with Woody is not his idea of a great time.

"To meet Toni," she replies. He cocks an eyebrow.

"How sadistic are you?' he demands as he walks out of the room.

"He likes Woody," she comments once he's gone.

"No, I don't," he calls from the stairwell before clomping up to his room.

Gabi dismisses it with a flippant wave of her hand. "He's just saying that."

"Yeah," I agree in a tone that assures her I don't agree. "He obviously adores her."

She sighs, showing her annoyance with me on the subject. "It's not easy, Toni. I mean, he took right to you. He just doesn't like her. She tried doing stuff with him, but he doesn't want any part of it."

"Does she treat him like a kid?" I ask, "Because I can't think of anything that would make him angrier than that."

"I don't know," she says as she does something I've never seen her do and clears my plate away for me. "He just doesn't like her. But don't worry," she smiles. "You'll love Woody."

"Oh, I bet I will." I shoot her another grin that shows her I don't believe I will. "Where the hell does a lesbian get the name Woody anyway?"

"There's actually a really funny story behind it…" she starts.

"Never mind," I cut her off. "I don't think I want to know." She laughs a bit.

"I've missed you, Toni."

"Yeah, well… I've missed you too." Her hand moves to cover mine and it's a strange feeling of comfort. I hadn't really let myself know the comfort of a woman in a long time. I'd been denying myself any form of human desperation since that night with Kat… some sort of masochistic punishment, I guess. I'm not talking about sex. I'm talking about comfort… Not just sleeping with someone… being with someone. With someone the way I was with her. And I've only let one person touch me like that. Let someone be with me, instead of just sleeping with them. Like I said, masochism. But when you swear you'll never forget you were in love with someone… you have to remind yourself somehow.

.=.+.=.

"I don't want to ever forget this, Toni," she whispered, running her hands over my hair. "Here, you, now. I don't ever want to forget this." I smiled and tumbled easily onto the grass, pulling Gabi down with me. Laying on my back, her head on my chest, and more stars than I knew could exist dotting the inky black sky.

"I don't want to forget either, Gabi," I replied, rolling over and pinning her underneath me. "You've got a grass stain on your cheek," I told her, kissing it. She grinned lazily up at me.

"Say it," she murmured. "Say you'll never forget."

I felt the corners of my mouth curl into a smile, the way she made them do all the time. "I'll never forget."

"Forget what?" she asked, her teasing glint in her eyes.

"Forget this," I whispered back, kissing her face, all over, her forehead, eyebrows, nose, cheeks, chin, everywhere but her lips.

"I'll never forget," she murmured, seeking out my lips. "I'll never forget your soft kisses or your voice, or smile, or that look in your eyes." She brought her face down to the nape of my neck. Burying her head in it, she inhaled deeply. "Or this," she said, pulling back again, "The way you smell, like leather and Irish Springs soap."

"You can't ever forget," I told her, resting my forehead against hers, our mouths just centimeters apart. "Because, I couldn't stand being the only person on Earth who remembered this, who knew about this, about how it felt, feels. I couldn't stand being the only person in the world who understands what we have. I couldn't stand being the only person who knew we're in love."

"And you'll never be the only one, Toni. Because I can't ever forget I love you."

.=.+.=.

Gabi's mother, Mara, was a painter and she had passed that love onto her daughter. I remember the first time I had met her had been in the studio of the house. She had paint on her cheek and a dab on her nose, and she had hugged me and patted my cheek, calling me a handsome young man. The paint on her smock had smeared onto my good dress shirt and left rainbow streaks. They were still there today. I always smiled when I looked at the shirt. It reminded me of Gabi, and her hair. I had taken to wearing the shirt, my friends calling it my coat of many colors. That made me smile too.

Gabi had told me that when the cancer was at its worst, her mother hadn't been able to keep her hand steady enough to hold the paintbrush. She could only watch Gabi paint. It had devastated them both.

"Toni!" her mother exclaimed as they walked into the kitchen where Gabi and I were still talking. "It's wonderful to see you again!"

"It's great to see you again, and looking so well." I smile a real smile. Gabi's father nods to me. He's a tall and wiry man, with a hard set jaw, and good looks. He dresses clean, but his pink polo shirt makes me think his wife picked it out. We shared a smile of solidarity over this- after all, it was not very long ago his daughter picked out my clothes.

"You're spending the night, aren't you?" she asks, lighting up with the earnestness of a true hostess. "Woody's coming for dinner, you must stay." You can see it in her eyes the gala she's already planning. "Speaking of which, I should start cooking. What would you like, Toni?"

"Oh, anything's fine by me," I say casually.

She laughs, the same laugh her daughter has and pats my cheek, "You're such a man, Toni," and she smiles indulgently. "Rick," she focuses on her husband now. "What should I make?"

"Whatever's around," he replies, as bored with the subject as I am. "Whatever's easiest."

She tosses her hands up in the air- a good-natured gesture that she's ever the household martyr. "The only one of you I'm going to get an answer from is Woody, so I might as well go call her," she proclaims, and stalks off to do just such. Gabi's father and I share another look of solidarity over this- we understand each other.

"So…" Gabi says, for lack of anything better to say. And I just nod.

.=.+.=.

                "So I'm just destined to be your regret?" Gabi asked sadly, gazing up at me with those incredible violet eyes. I sighed sadly and leaned against the soft blue wall of her room.

                "You know how I said that I'd forgotten some of women I've slept with?" I asked her, playing with the sleeve of my shirt. She nodded, her face contorting in confusion.

                "What do you mean by that, Toni?" she asked carefully, fearful of what I could be saying.

                "I'm saying I forgot some women, it was better that way… but you, Gabi, I can't forget you. You'll never be my regret," I reached over and brushed her hair out of her eyes, letting my fingers linger a second. "You're the one I'll never forget."

                Gabi kissed me one last time and then let go of me, hoisting the duffel bag on her shoulder.

                "Never's a promise, Toni."

                "I know," I told her. "I promise you, I'll never forget you."

                "This is it, Toni…" she said, her voice barely audible. "Kiss me once because you love me, kiss me twice for good bye."

                I walked over and gathered here in my arms. "I love you," I managed to say, leaning down to kiss her. Once. Twice. Three times. "Good bye…"

                "You're crying, Toni," she managed, reaching a hand up to wipe away my tears. "I'd never seen you cry…"

                "I'd gone six years without crying," I told her through the tears, "I could go six more, but for losing you… Nothing's ever hurt me so bad as losing you."

                "Why?" she murmured, "Why do we have to hurt each other?"

                "Because I love you, and I can never forget that," I vowed softly, kissing her again.

                "You're lucky… I'm afraid I will," she admitted, tears flowing freely.

                "You can't," I told her, "You promised. You said you'd never forget, and never is a promise."

                "You're right," she said, kissing me again, lingering… too long. A car horn blasted in the distance.

                "The taxi…" she explained weakly.

                "I know, we knew this day would come," I replied in a cracking voice.

                "Promise me, Toni, again, promise me you'll never forget me, and you'll never forget we're in love."

                "Only if you promise," I said.

                "Leather and Irish Springs soap," she said weakly, "I promise, I'll never forget you."

                "I'll never forget," I vowed. "Never is a promise, and to that I hold."

.=.+.=.

Mara squeezes my shoulder as I begin to set the table. "I hope you know we are all so glad to see you again, Toni." She takes the dishes from me and sets them on the table. "I really want to tell you how grateful I am that you're still around for her even if you are broken up… She needs people like you around, Toni."

I smile and shrug. "Hey, it's nothing big. Gabi's a great girl. I want to be around her."

"I know, I know," Mara says, dismissing it easily with her hands. "But I still appreciate. Not many people would stick around you know. And if it weren't for you, Toni… I don't know where she'd be."

"I'm sure she'd be fine, Mara," I reassure her. "I don't think you ever need to worry about Gabi, but you're a mother, so I won't even bother telling you that."

"You seem like you understand people sometimes, Toni," Mara observes. "More than you should."

"We've all got our cross to bear."

"And that is yours, hm?" she prods. She begins setting the forks around the table. "You'll like Woody, I think. She's a lot like you in some ways."

"I should be so lucky then." I begin folding napkins, with an air of forced nonchalance and habit. "If Gabi likes her, I'm sure I will."

                "You should be a politician, Toni," she says, grinning at me. "That was a very good answer."

                "That's the funny thing," I smile. "I plan to be."

                She cocks her head at me. "That's odd, Gabi used to talk about how you're a writer." She smiles, like she knows everything, and I'm halfway inclined to believe she does. She's mother Earth incarnate. "I always just assumed you were an English major."

                "She talked about that?" I smile bashfully. "I never really thought it was that important to her. I kind of just wrote for the sake of writing." But I knew it was important to her. She brought it up. It was one of my defining traits in her eyes, and she liked to read everything I wrote. She saw more in what I put on paper than the thought and feelings and words I had. I think it was part of… who she saw me as. What was I was in her eyes.

                Of course, there's a big difference between who I am and who she wanted me to be.

                "She talked about it a lot," Mara says. "When we were painting, she'd talk of you. You were what her mind was always on. She talked often of the poetry you wrote for her." I blush. I never knew Gabi told anyone about the poems I wrote her. I'd known they meant so much to her, and she never really talked about the things that mattered. We both thought it was better when they went unspoken. When the things that really meant the world to us… didn't have to be said. We just understood.

                "You should know, Toni," Mara continues, her voice low. Our eyes lock. "She talked of you so often. She cared for you very much."

                I nod solemnly, and the doorbell rings, breaking the moment. Bug walks into the dining room, through the kitchen and towards the door.

                "It's Woody," he announces glumly. Mara is still looking at me. I don't doubt how much thought she's put behind her words. Bug continues to the living room to get the door.

                "I know she did," I tell her. "I know she cared."

                "Don't forget it," she says gently. "Even if it's not now, it still… it makes thing easier to remember things. The heart forgives what the mind doesn't. It holds what the mind forgets. Sometimes, memories make it easier to let go." She gives me an encouraging smile, and I know she's just trying to help.

                I nod. "Thank you." I follow Bug into the living room. Gabi's already opened the door and I walk in right as she kisses Woody hello. I divert my gaze instinctually. I feel like an intruder, walking in on such a private moment. It's as though it was something I wasn't supposed to see. Too private.

                Bug coughs loudly- it obviously wasn't too private for him. Gabi glances over. Taking Woody's hand, she brings her over to me. "Toni, this is Woody," she introduces shyly. I gaze at the woman with scrutiny. She wasn't as butch as I thought she'd be, she certainly wasn't stone. I stuck my hand out.

                "Good to meet you," I say casually, her hand gripping mine. It's a butch match of social formality. I let her win, because I don't care anymore.

                "Likewise," she replies. Mara comes in from the dining room. She gives my shoulder a comforting squeeze as walks by.

                "Woody!" she greets enthusiastically and gives her a hug. Mara, I think, loves everyone. She had more love than I did anyway. I sort of hated everyone in my own little way. "I made chicken Kiev," she informs everyone. "I need to feed my starving college students."

                Mara always wanted to take care of everyone. When the cancer was still active, she'd still wanted to. But Gabi had been able to make her take care of herself, instead of Gabi. I don't think Mara forgave herself.

                Woody follows Bug into the dining room, both nipping at Mara's heels. I reach and hold the door open for Gabi. "After you, mademoiselle," I say with elaborate grandeur. Woody shoots me a challenging glare. I return it with just as much vigor. I can't believe I actually consented to sit down and eat a meal with Woody.

                After I broke up with Gabi, well, after we broke up with each other, I couldn't call her my ex-girlfriend. I'd bitten my brother, Dan's, head off for calling her my ex. 'She's not my ex', I'd stated angrily. 'She's not my girlfriend anymore.' That was the thing. The feeling that had made my girlfriend, they were still there. She wasn't an old girlfriend, she wasn't my girlfriend. There was nothing ex about it.

                But when she'd started dating Woody, well, that was when there was something ex about it.

.=.+.=.

                I slammed the door to my room and sunk softly into a chair. I could still feel Kat's touches and her gaze. I'd promised I'd never forget- and even though I knew I couldn't, the night spent with Kat had made me think I could.

                "It was a mistake," I declared aloud. My cat jumped down from his perch on my deck. His name was Hecuba. I think all cats should be named Hecuba. Not fucken Vincent.

                So many mistakes and all of my regrets wound up in one night, like the tightest ball of string. "Mistake." It was easy to call it that. I could still feel her on my skin. I remember how it was she'd first seduced me, over a year ago. And last night, she'd proven she still could. That she could make me let go.

                And maybe- she could make me forget.

The apartment phone rings and I don't go to answer it, because I know who it's going to be. "This is Toni," the answering machine answers after three rings. "Please leave your name, number, and a brief message after the tone and I'll try and get back to you as soon as I can."

"Toni?" Kat's voice on the machine cuts through me, even though I knew it would be her. "This is Kat… um, just kind of wondering where you are, where you went. Last night… we can just call it a mistake if you want… look, just call me back, okay?"

I looked around the room, my incredibly clean, organized room, the one place I let all of my obsessions show through. Impeccably… obsessively… cleaned. Immaculate.  I walked over to the bookshelf and let my fingers fall over the bindings of the books. Course clothlike hardcover binding, smooth, shiny paper bindings, some rough and cracked.

Among other things, I could see Gabi in my books now. I could hear her laugh as I ran my fingers over them., memories too vivid to ignore, even if I'd wanted to.

On the top of the bookshelf lay a masculine silver Claddagh promise ring, that she had worn on a chain around her neck, because she had been mine. And she had left it behind- she wasn't mine anymore. I slipped the ring back on my finger.

And I didn't call Kat back.

.=.+.=.

Moving from the living room, where Gabi and Woody and I have been watching television with Bug, I head into the kitchen. I need something to drink, I'm getting parched. Gabi always made me thirsty. The night is tense. Dinner well, it was more somber than the Last Supper, and just tense. There was nothing causal about it. I don't think anyone laughed.

                I crack open the beer I pull from the refrigerator. It's hot outside, and hotter still in the kitchen, and the cool draft slips down my throat easily.

"Drinking alone?" I look over to see the snide voice could only belong to one person- Woody.

"Just cooling down. It's hot as hell in this city." She nods her agreement and gets her own beer.

"It is that," Woody rubs the cold bottle across her forehead first before opening it. "You know something, Toni, I don't think you like me."

"Where would you get that idea, Woody?" I remark casually. "I thought dinner was a lovely occasion." I roll my eyes. "Next are you going to tell me to stay away from your girl, or is this the only burst of butch stupidity this evening?"

Woody represses the urge to growl. "Watch it, Romeo," she snarls. "If you think I need to tell you that, you obviously don't realize that she is my girl."

"So when are you gonna tell me?" I shot back. "Because you should know more than anyone that Gabi doesn't belong to anyone. It's not in her nature."

"Maybe not for you, Toni." And I can see a bit of integrity in her eyes. "But I really care about that woman, and I know she loves me back. And I know she's mine. She's not yours anymore."

I snort. "Oh come on, man, just because she loves you doesn't mean you own her. This is Gabi, you're talking about. And she still loves me. But that doesn't make her mine."

"Do you still love her?" Woody really wants to know.

"Well." I smirk. "You know it's true, that rumor you heard about me loving her."

"And still?"

"Yeah," I tell her the truth. "I love Gabi. I will always love her."

"Why?" Woody demands, confusion showing up on her perfectly dense face.

"Because. Because I have never loved anyone more or better than I love her." Kat's face flashed in my mind, reaffirming my words. "And I never will."

"You're saying you'll always love her best?" Woody sneers in a strange sort of sadistic amusement. "Damn, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of pain."

I set down on a white kitchen stool and for a second trace mindless patterns in the condensation on my beer bottle. "Sit down, Woody, I'll tell you a thing or two about love." She actually obliges me by sitting. I didn't think she would, since I'd mostly been patronizing her to begin with. "I won't ever love anyone more or better. But I will love some as much. But next time, maybe more wisely. And maybe a bit differently. But not more. Certainly not better."

"That's a very sweet thought," Woody replies.

"Isn't it though?" I say back, just as sarcastically. "Because that's how love is. Unending. One day you wake up and you realize you're so much in love with someone. And you know they're everything you want, and there is nothing more than you that they could want. You know it's pure and perfect. And then something happens and it's ripped away from you so fast you don't know in happened. And you're empty and hollow and bitter and broken. But you know what? You still loved- so it's worth it. Even though, I must admit, sometimes the pain is so much it can almost make you forget."

"Damn, Toni, you're dark," Woody says arrogantly. God, I hate her. "I can't see how you and Gabi fit together… you're dark, man."

"You've had a few too many beers, I think, Woody," I reply coolly. "I don't think you get what either of us are saying.

"Oh, I get it all right." Woody drums her fingers against her thigh. "But here's what I don't get, Toni, maybe you can tell me. I don't get why she still loves you?"

"Because she does." I shrug. "Can't help that. People feel stuff, it doesn't go away. But it does fade a bit with time. Don't worry, you've got nothing to fear."

"I know," Woody remarks sharply- as though she's offended by the insinuation she might, despite what I actually said. "I just think it's interesting that of all people, you're the one with the hold over her."

"Stranger things have happened," I mutter, and set my now empty beer bottle in the sink. "Don't be so surprised. You'd be shocked to know, I'm not all that bad with women."

"How?" Woody smirks, an action intended to show her superiority- I just think it shows she's an asshole. "What's your secret, sensei?"

I decide to throw her for a loop and give her an honest answer. "I seduce their minds first. And then I seduce their bodies." I toss my head back. "Anyone slow-witted butch with nice abs can seduce their bodies, Woody. But if you can seduce their mind before you touch their body- there's something there that's a bit harder to break."

Woody ponders for a second, and for once, she is silent. "I never thought about it that way," she admits. I smirk, but she can't see me, since my back is to her, as I open the refrigerator to get another beer.

"Well, maybe you should start," I shrug. "I'm gonna go get some air." I start walking away.

"Hey Toni," she calls. I look over my shoulder.

"Woody?"

"Stay away from my girl."

                I turn all the way around and smirk. "Not on your life."

.=.+.=.

                I was never much for long good byes, and I was never much for finishing things. I kind of liked to leave things hang, you know? Because that way, if there was a chance- just a chance that things could work out the way I wanted them to… well, it'd be a lot easy to set them back into place. But then again, it was also a lot easier for things to set themselves up to be around forever. It's like when you cut yourself, and it scabs over, and fades into a scar. See, I always picked scabs. When they finally got to where they scarred over, it was a worse scar than if I'd left the scab alone to begin with. And I don't know why I liked to pick scabs. Maybe I just liked to bleed.

                Sometimes I feel so cut up on the inside, and I wonder why I pick those scabs, because God knows, I'm waiting for the day they scar over and I don't have to feel them anymore. God knows, I'm waiting for the day they're just reminders of what used to be there.

                Gabi had a scar on her back, from where she'd had heart surgery when she was very little. It wound around the curve of her side, from her front, to her back. It was pale pink against her white skin. She hated the scar, but I thought was pretty.

                When these cuts scar over, I swear they will be just as pretty.

                The feeling I get from the rainbows and the lights and the dancing of Pridefest is a feeling I only get there. Neither Gabi or Kat had been much for going to Pride and stuff like that, but I was. I understood how they weren't activists, and how they just wanted to live a quiet life, but I liked it. I got a rush off it. All those people in one place- my people. It was enough for someone to get drunk off of. To me, it was life.

                Spotting some of the members from my college's GLBT group sitting at a table drinking, I grabbed my own beer and headed over to them.

                "Toni!" they greeted me. I smiled and nodded.

                "Hey guys." I pulled out a free chair and turned it around, straddling it backwards. "How's tricks?"

                A series of nods and mumbled greats replied to my questions. There's a delicate poignancy to this moment. You see, we're all here together, because we're all here alone. And everybody knows it in their heart.

                The girl next to me stretched, the way women do when they're not really tired- it's a form of advertising really. Which made sense, she was  an advertising major. Second year. A little shorter than me. Cute girl. I liked her. But you know the kind of girl who you look at and they look like they're someone's girlfriend? And they usually are. They just have this look that tells you they have someone who loves and adores them and takes good care of them. They have this look that lets you know they belong to someone else. Someone else who's not you. Melissa, that's her name, she's that kind of girl.

                But for some reason, she's been left alone tonight. I used to wonder if the "girlfriend" type girls went through long periods between relationships. But I didn't think they did. They don't.

                The loud techno pumped through the system and we tried to talk despite it. It didn't work out very well. I liked the idea of flirting with a girl who I used to think of as untouchable. Melissa just… she was herself. Untouchable.

                I hated sitting at a table full of people but only being able to really talk to one. It gets to me. Even if it was the one I wanted to talk to, it still bothered me. So the second the song changed to something danceable, I stood up.

                "Would you like to dance?" I asked Melissa, politely, giving her my best Sunday smile, the one Gabi used to say went along with my best Sunday heart. Don't love me with that, she'd told me. I like it when you open doors, and are formally perfect, but don't love me with your best Sunday heart. Love me the way you love every other day. That had been what she'd wanted from me.

                I'd tried to give it to her.

                Melissa didn't answer, just stood up and took my hand. I was beginning to figure out why she was a girlfriend girl, and not the kind you just date. She knew how to make it so easy to fall into her. Ten minutes into the night, I could already see how easy it would be to fall into a relationship with her. It was a good thing that I consider relationships to be falling from a great and gruesome height at the point, or I might have. But Gabi and Kat had already shown me that it was scary. I messed up with them, the last thing I needed was a girlfriend girl. She'd want me to tell her I loved her and needed her, and to tell her the truth but… that's so hard to do.

                I moved around on the floor with her, trying to make a couples song out of something that wasn't really one. The first time I'd danced with Kat, we'd been at some god awful country bar in Hicksville, Midwest, and Nancy Sinatra had been singing about how her boots were made for walking, and we'd been trying to figure out how to line dance together.

                It hadn't worked very well- but it'd been worth the try.

                The song stopped, and Melissa smiled at me. "Come with me," she told me, finally being able to murmur in the few second void between songs. I followed her. She led me to the steps outside the building and sat down.

                "I wanted to go somewhere we could talk," she explained, smiling sweetly. She seemed so innocent that I was kind of amazed at how easily she could trap a fellow into an infatuation.

                "Yeah, kind of loud in there," I said for lack of something better. Filler.

                She smiled, recognizing the awkward filler and patted the spot on the steps beside her. I sat down, and she moved closer.

                "You're a very good dancer," I said. She was too.

                "So are you," she echoed. But she was lying. I wasn't much of a dancer. My genetics had gifted me with a mild case of LRD- Left-footed rhythmic disorder. I could dance all right, but I wasn't any good.

                "No, I'm not," I said, grinning. She shook her head.

                "You're fine," she said, taking my hand. "Okay, maybe you're not, but what difference does it make?"

                "All the difference in the world," I said in my own cryptic way. I tried to be cryptic sometimes, to stir things up. But it didn't work with her, she just laughed.

                "You're weird," she teased gently, smiling with me. She had a girlfriend smile- I was sunk.

                "You're beautiful," I shot back. And it was true. She really was. Besides, telling the truth is preferable to lying, and everything else I wanted to say was a lie. I love you. I need you. I want you. Lies.

                She leaned over and kissed me gently. "Thank you," she whispered against my lips. I got the feeling she'd really needed to hear that. I kissed her back, and wrapped an arm around her waist.  She pulled back and settled into my embrace. "You're so cute," she said finally, once she had sunken into my touch. Like she belonged.

                "Thanks," I replied, in a very butch, the kind of way where I should be blushing but I'm not.

                "I've wanted to kiss you for a very long time," she stated. "You're a good kisser."

                "You're not bad yourself," I shot back, and I leaned in to kiss her, leaving small kisses down her jaw, onto her neck. She must have showered just a little earlier, because she tasted of skin. She smelled of roses and the cigarettes smoked at the table, but she tasted only of skin. It was comforting. "So if you've wanted to kiss me, why is this the first time?"

                She smirked. "Well, you always seem to have another half around."

                "So do you," I pointed out logically. I wonder if she thinks of me as relationship material in the same way I view her as a girlfriend girl. "You've always had a better half, ever since I've known you."

                "Yeah, well, like you used to have. I prefer the worst of you, though." She smiled and kissed me again. "I like you more without your better half. They never really were my type."

                "I hope not," I said honestly. "But yeah, I guess it just never worked out for this to happen before."

                Melissa grinned. "I'd thought of stealing you away, but that didn't seem to fly well. Besides, I hate to admit it, but you were kind of perfect together."

                "Me and who?" I asked. Masochist I am.

                She shrugged. "Gabi, Kat, anyone. You just seemed to fit with whoever you were with." She runs her hand over my messy hair. My hair never laid flat, Gabi and Kat had both tried to wrestle it down, but it'd never worked. I used to slick it back with lethal amounts of gel, but having a Pennzoil factory in my hair didn't suit me. Melissa smiled as she touched it. "You hair."

                "It's messy, I know." I grinned back hopelessly.

                "It pleases me," she announced. It was in that moment I realized how easily we could fit. I'd recognized it before, but it sort of slapped me in the face that second. I kissed her again. It was surreal.

                "Come back to my dorm room," she whispered, making an offer for more than a night. I knew it too. The girlfriend girl was offering me a chance. It wasn't just sex.

                It'd taken me the better part of a month and half to get Gabi into bed, and the better part of two hours to get Kat into bed. But with Gabi, it hadn't been easy. I remember having to work for it, knowing what to say, being nervous. It had been anything but easy, and it'd been frustrating. It was longest I'd ever had to wait with any girl.

                Melissa looked into my eyes, asking me for a promise that she could only make to me in a night. I kissed her again, she was comfortable. She and I, we seemed to fit with anyone, and I guess that meant we could fit with each other. It'd be so easy.

                "No," I said quietly and I stood up. She gazed up at me, questioning. "This is too easy. We don't… we don't deserve this. Not now. Not with so little work."

                Not waiting for her reply, I slowly walked away.

               

.=.+.=.

                I step out onto the deck overlooking the yard, the night air is hot and heavy like a sauna. I'm just a little unsteady. Woody doesn't know how to shake me up, but she doesn't have to. My memories do a good enough job. Gabi has… changed. I never thought she would. Never wanted her to. I have this picture in my mind of what she was, who she should be. She's stopped matching it and that scares me. It's like… it's like if Santa Claus turned out to be that mean old man who never let you get your baseballs out of his yard. It's just… hard when things don't fit the way they're meant to.

                Woody… Woody's kind of the mean old man. She's not who I expected. For one, she's a bit too soft a butch. Gabi always made her seem like she was a stone, but she's a soft-handed baby butch. I rub my own palm on my forehead, reassured by its rough feel. It's a condition built up by years of being a rugged outdoorsman. I never liked soft hands. Gabi and Kat both had hands that were soft. Like fucken cream. They were so soft and gently- but it was softly that they broke me.

                "What are you doing out here?" Her voice breaks through the air, and I turn around, to catch her just as she walks onto the deck. She moves so gracefully and purposely, like a dancer who never got up on stage. She walks over to me.

                "I just wanted to get some air," I excused softly. She looks concerned.

                "Something suffocating you?" she prods easily, with a maternal nature I never remember her having. She raises her eyebrows, demanding an answer.

                "I'm fine," I tell her. "Really. I just wanted to get some air. You know I like to be outside."

                "Yeah," she says dotingly. "I know you do. Except where there's water. Scary water."

                I blush- I'd almost forgotten that she knew all my fears. "Don't make fun," I ask, but I'm telling her to keep talking. She knows that.

                "You're a pretty sorry butch if you're scared of water," she teases. I smile.

                "Yeah, but you were always the butch one." She shakes her head and laughs. It was funny when I called her butch because she was… such a femme. Really, when I thought of everything a woman should be, she was what came to mind.

                "Nah… I'm not a butch," she smiles serenely. "Do you like Woody?"

                "Oh yeah," I say, but my voice constricts just enough so that she knows I don't mean it. "She's a real peach. A diamond in the rough, if you will."

                She rolls her eyes. "She's really not that bad, I don't know what people have against her." Gabi sighs and shifts from foot to foot. "I mean, really… it's like… I don't know." She runs her hand through her long hair. Jackson Pollock hair. That never changed. "She's special. She's… there's something about her. You need to know her, understand her before you can l-" She falls silent.

                "Love her?' I shrug. "It's okay, I kind of figured as much."

                "I didn't mean to bring that up," she mumbles. "I mean, it's not okay for me to, since we were… yeah."

                "Don't sweat it," I say toughly. "I mean, no big deal. So you love Woody. I'm happy for you."

                "Why are you so calm about these things all the time?" she asks. I turn to her. I never expected that from her.

                "It's just how I am," I answer nonchalantly. "I can't stop you from loving Woody. I'd given a lot of thought to what I'd do when you found someone. I thought I'd freak out, to be honest. But I didn't. It passed."

                "Did you write poems about it?"

                "I don't really write poems, you know that. I'm more a prose-writing kind of guy."

                She nods. "I always liked your poems better." I shrug.

                "I like my prose better."

                She wrinkles her nose. "Argumentative little brat." She shifts. "Will you write about it someday?"

                "Yeah, I imagine I will." I pause. "Someday. I'll write it all down."

                "Why?"

                "Because… it's what I do. I write. It's part of me. I write to survive. I need to put my thoughts down on paper."

                "What do you mean?" She watches intently, waiting for an answer. I don't answer right away, and we stand there, staring at each other on her deck.

                She prompts again, "Why is it you need to put them down on paper?"

"So that I don't lose them," I shift and lean against the guardrail of the deck. "You know why I wanted to become a writer?" I say finally. She shakes her head, giving a quizzical look.

"I don't think I'd have asked you if I knew."

"I... I became a writer because I couldn't trust my own memories. And I think that I wanted to remember these things. I want to remember how it felt… how it still even feels. I wanted to take it all and write it all down. So that I could remember."

"Remember what exactly?" she prods, looking at me as though she finally understand. Looking at me as though she… she wants to understand. "Just… everything?"

"Kind of… that's part of it." I sigh. A lament for the fact she can't really understand. "I wanted to remember everything that was worth remembering. I want to remember the look in your eyes. The grass stain that was on your cheek that night. I want to remember how you looked tonight, when you walked through the door. Gabi," I cupped her face. "I want to remember you."

"You told me once, you couldn't really write when you had a girlfriend."

"When things are that good… I don't have to remember really. But the truth is, I can't really write when I don't have a girlfriend." I give her a sideways smile. The one I've always had. She'd laugh at me if she knew abut the nights I spent perfecting it in front of the mirror. Perfecting all my looks. Serious, bashful, overjoyed. All the things that should just be spontaneous… I was never spontaneous. "I spend most of my time trying to write these days, but I never really do. I can't write when I don't have a girlfriend. I get caught up in the little stuff. I get caught up in a rut and I don't write what I really feel. I can put down a million words on paper about how I feel about it… but it's really not writing."

"What would be writing?"

I touched my chest. "When I somehow managed to take words from my soul… and write them on yours." I touched her chest. "And on hers. And on his. And on anyone who read them. When my words, my memories reached into someone and grabbed them. When my words made them remember."

"That's a hell of a reason to become a writer, Toni." Gabi takes out a stick of Chapstick and ran it over her lips. "I get that though."

"No, you don't," I told her. "And you never will.

.=.+.=.

                "How long do you keep planning to pretend I don't exist?" I looked up from my drink and saw Kat slide into the seat across from me.

                "I don't know," I shrugged. "Once the past stopped being so familiar." I used my hand to make a small, elaborate gesture at the bar. When we'd slept together that night, when we'd made that mistake, we'd been here at Galena's with friends. I was sort of starting to hate that damn bar.

                "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, more curious than harsh. She never was very good at being harsh, she could be mean, but she didn't know how to be mean about being mean.

                "Hell if I know. I don't know the answers to my own riddles." I wasn't good at riddles, I was good at secrets, but I didn't get riddles. I liked to try and tell them though.

                "If you don't know, how should I know?"

                I shrugged. "Maybe you shouldn't."

                "Why shouldn't I know?' she inquires, her face taking on the flirty grin she's so damn good at it. Every time I see that grin, it reminds me how love and hate can be the same thing. I hated and loved her, like I love and hate myself. But she always had that sexy grin on her face, I don't really know why. It still drove me insane.

                "Because, I don't know. It's just how things can be sometimes be." I grinned at her. "Besides, it's more fun if you don't know, isn't it?"

                "So you've been avoiding me." She stated it, but I decided to treat it like a question.

                "Another thing maybe you shouldn't know," I answered casually. "But I guess… I don't know, we drew lines, we made lines for sanity, normalcy, whatever it was. You made them too."

                "Yeah, I made lines," Kat admitted, her voice remaining as even and casual as they ever get. "But I kept them for you."

                "Yeah, whatever," I kept trying to be gruff. As though I could. She's got that flirty grin and she knows it's going to tear right through my defenses so easily.

                "You can't just run away from this," she told me gently. She bit her lip, not grinning for a second.

                "No," I replied harshly. "That was always your job."

                "What was it you said?"

                "When? Just now?" I cocked my head at her.

                "No, the night you told me you were in love with me."

                "I don't really remember." I shrugged. "I don't think about that night very often. For obvious reasons."

                "Yeah, I imagine," Kat replied and she sighed. She used to sigh a lot. But I used to give her reasons to. And they used to be happy sighs.

                I lied, because I do remember that night… I remember I brushed hair away from her face and I'd said that I didn't want anything to change. The room was dark, and we drinking tea. I'd always loved drinking tea with her, with all her spices and herbs and medicine balls, it felt like home, like the only remedy I'd ever need.

                I don't remember things though, the fuzzy warm memory of tea, because then I have to remember it all, and when I remember, I remember how it felt. How it still feels. Worthless. Used.

                I shut my eyes and heaved a sigh of exasperation. "I remember," I said finally. "I said, I never want anything to change. We were drinking earl grey tea, and the room was dark, we were watching a video, sitting on the futon, I don't even know what movie it was. We were in your basement. I remember. I reached over and brushed the hair out of your eyes, and I said I never wanted anything to change."

                She shivered slightly- the same way she had that night. An almost unnoticeable shiver. It was one of those things you could only see if you knew when to look, where to look, if you knew it was coming. Shivers and shudders were part of Kat. I knew where to look. It's just like when I was 12 and I got my first crush on the girl next door, I carved her name into the tree outside of my parents' house. Minnesota winters were hard on that tree, and time went. My parents moved away and the girl next door, she moved away too. But I could still find it- I knew where to look. When I look at that tree, my fingers know where to go. When I look into the mirror, I can see it written. Just like the names of other girls. Kat's one of those names.

                "And then you said you loved me." She smiled sadly, the flirty grin gone for a melancholy moment.

                "No, I said I was in love with you. I said I'd always be in love with you." I smiled softly.

                "And then I said…"

                "And then you said you didn't love me, that you could never be in love with someone like me. You said it had just been a fling, that it wasn't supposed to be me. You said you could never have those feelings for me. I tried to say it again, you said, don't say that, it doesn't matter." Kat hung her head, embarrassed. "I do remember."

                "I'm sorry," she whispered. "And when I said don't say that, you said not saying it didn't make any less true."

                "Yeah, well." I cleared my throat roughly. "Then you kicked me out. Besides… that was then, this is now."

                "Don't get all untouchable with me, Toni," she rebuked me sharply. "I know how you get when you don't… don't want to go there."

                "Well then, don't you just know everything," I snapped. "I never meant to get this way, Kat, I never thought I'd be breakable. But I guess you know that too."

                "Toni," she murmurs, her voice becoming instantly softer. I guess maybe she didn't know that. Maybe she didn't know everything. Maybe she didn't understand. She reached over and touched my cheek. "I never thought you'd be that either."

                "I never wanted to be, but don't tell me that, babe, remember I might love you." I shoved the drink on the counter away from me. "Or at least remember that I did. Thought I did. Wanted to. I don't fucken know."

                "You don't know? Are you okay, Toni? Are you drunk?" The thought has just finally occurred to her, after all, we're in a bar. But I'm not drunk.

                "No, I'm not drunk at all," I answered honestly. "But I think I can call you my sugar, because I've got kind of a high going, and so I think it's like a sugar high, Sugar." I grinned at her; it was kind of spiteful, hateful grin. Like I said, I love and hate her, like myself.

                "Toni, you know the answers."

                "The answer is love, Sugar, but I've long since forgotten the question." I sighed and stood up, setting several one dollar bills on the counter until I was satisfied I'd settled the bill. Kat used to tease me about having so many one dollar bills. It happens, she'd say, when you're a stripper.

                She grabbed my hand and I turned around to her. "How about this for a question," she said evenly. "I just have one question. Did you love me? Was this for real or not?"

                "That's two questions," I replied smartly. She winced, as though the callous response had really hurt her. I was certain it hadn't.

                "Toni, answer them."

                "They're not the right questions," I said back, trying to explain in my own quaint way. "Because the real question is, did it ever change?"

                We made so many promises that night; they lay in all the words we chose to say aloud. Never want anything to change. Always love you. Could never love you. Doesn't make it any less true. I'll love you forever. Never. Always. Forever. True. They're promises.

                "You tell me."

                "No, because I can't because you said you could never love me. Did that ever change?" My voice got uncharacteristically loud and I stabbed at the air with my finger.

                "I remember thinking that night… that if I were stronger, I could love you right." She ran her fingers through her hair, exasperated now that the tables were turned. "So maybe, kind of, it did change."

                "Are you stronger now?" I hissed. "Because I'm so damn breakable that if you're stronger, maybe I could let you. Are you stronger now?"

                "Yes!" she exclaimed back firmly. "That's what I've been trying to tell you."

                "Then goddamn it, why didn't you just say what you meant," I respond, just as loud. "Because that means everything is different."

                "What is it that's different?"

                I just took her face in my hands and kissed her hard, for a second I feared it would be the last time that she let me. But it wasn't. And so I just kissed her, not for any reason except that I just felt like it.

.=+.=.

                "Why wouldn't I understand?" she asks softly. "I used to understand you."

                "I think what you made you understand is gone," I mutter. I glance out over her backyard. It's sickeningly ordinary, just like this whole neighborhood.

                "What made me understand?" She narrows her eyes, in an angry and confused movement. It always inspired anger in Gabi when she didn't understand. "I understood you because I felt a connection to you."

                "Connection." I scoff. "We used to use that word so much our romance would make a good drinking game."

                "Of course, it was just a game," she whispers. I hate myself for my slipping tongue.

                "It wasn't a game," I demur angrily. I'm angry at myself. "It was never a game. At least not to me."

                "Not to me either, but then I guess I don't understand you."

"I just feel... I feel like I might be losing you. Like there's something between us that wasn't there before- some kind of wall, a barrier, just something. And not when we were dating. Two, three months ago. I'm losing you, Gabs, little by little."

"You're not losing me," she says flippantly, as though it's not exactly her first concern. Or maybe she doesn't think I'm as serious as I am. I'm being very serious.

"I am," I argue brashly. "I'm losing you so much. It hurts." I blink away the tears that are welling in my eyes because I don't want her to see them. Just because I'm hurting doesn't mean she needs to know that I am. It might hurt her. Just because I'm hurting doesn't mean she has to.

"I don't want you to be hurt."

"Then stop hurting me," I breathe softly, my voice constricting. She puts her hand on my shoulder, as if to soothe me, but it's really not… instead, it feels like it's slowly pushing me away. Her hands starting to burn into me, and it's just soft, gentle pushing.

I hate the fact that tears have welled in her eyes as she stares over at me. "You know," she says finally. "When I first met you, you wouldn't let me get close to you… and I kept wondering, what girl ruined you for the rest of us?" She moves her hand from my shoulder and moves my bangs out of my eyes. "This time, I was the one who ruined you."

I inhale sharply, my movements betraying me. She looks up at me, wanting me to say something, do something. Anything to make this all go away. "You know, I was ready for you to meet other people. I just wasn't ready to lose more of you." I grip her shoulders and for a brief second, I cry openly, but then I mange to pull myself together. It's an act of will. "I wasn't ready to lose more of you than I already did. I already lost you once."

"You don't have to lose me," she assures me, but her words are hollow and meaningless. She doesn't believe it anymore than I do. After all, I came all this way for her. And there's nothing here for me, not really. "You can have my friendship."

"And Woody can have your heart." My words come quickly to me, and I say them before I realize I do. They are harsh and to point. But they're true. "I always hated when people said, let's just be friends. Who wants to be friends? Second best."

"What are you playing at, Toni?" she demands, and she's harsh. "There's nothing new here. Nothing different. Nothing better. Nothing more to give you I didn't give before. It didn't work before, Toni, are you trying to tell me you want to try again?"

"No, it's not that." I throw my hands up in the air. "You don't get it, Gabi. You just don't get it."

"Then tell me!" she begs, a feral look in her eyes. "God damn it, Toni, tell me!"

"I'm saying I wasn't ready to lose you like this!"

"You already lost me! We don't have to go through this again!" Her voice sounds like she's laughing, but she's not. She's crying.

"Why did I lose you? I didn't lose you then, Gabs, not like I'm losing you now."

"Why did you love me?"

I stand, stunned in front of her, not knowing what to say. "I don't know how I would even begin to answer that question."

"Why don't you start by telling me," she orders, in a hard voice.

"You were so perfect." I shrug. "That's all."

"So that was it? You didn't love me, not like you said you did, did you, Toni?"

"No!" I protest angrily. "Don't ever say that. Don't ever believe that. Gabi, listen, I will never have loved anyone more or better than I have loved you." I sigh. "What I meant was that… you were what I wanted. You had me from the moment you walked into the room."

"Had what?"

"My adoration," I tell her softly. "My love. And my heart. But you know what the problem was?"

"If I knew that, I don't think we'd be standing on my back porch trying to figure it out," she reminds me gently.

"You're right… the problem was, you had me when you walked into… but you still had me when you walked away." I turn away and face the backyard. "But I don't think that really matters."

"Why wouldn't it matter?"

"I'll give you a hint- it starts with W and ends with oody," I reply coolly.

"What about Kat?" she shoots back. And I'm not just sure I have an answer for that.

.=.+.=.

She kissed my neck lazily in a way that made me know she believed I would never stop her. There was an odd urgency to her kiss and it made me want more, but less all at the same time.

"Kat, stop," I hissed in a hoarse voice, my throat groaning. "Stop."

"Are you telling me to quit?" she asked, backing off just a little.

"No," I breathed, heaving with desire. "I'm begging you to keep going. It's the same thing."

"That's what I thought," she murmured, claiming my lips again. My hand wrapped itself in her hair, and she pressed into me, pushing me down onto the couch, falling with me.

"You're such a beautiful lover," I murmured into her ear.

"No, I'm not," she shot back. "And neither are you."

"Always with the charm," I whispered into her ear. "Then why are you here?"

"This isn't about making love," she told me truthfully. "It's about passion… and need."

"Needing isn't wanting," I told her through clenched teeth. "I need you."

"Does that mean you don't want me?" she replied in the same cold, harsh whisper.

"I do want you." She ground her hips into my lap. She really was a beautiful lover. I had not forgotten her candlelit seductions. I hadn't forgotten how she made me feel like no girl had ever.

"Then come on, Toni," she ran her fingers over my chest. "Let's do this thing."

I pushed her off of me.

"Do this," I nodded. "Getting it done. Giving into a need, that's all. I want you, Kat. But not like this."

"Wait a minute," she took my hand and set it on her breast. "Is this you telling me you don't want me?"

"Not if this is the only way I can have you." Her eyes met mine in a stare down and she challenged me again. She was always challenging me to become something more than what I was. To be a better man than I had been before. And I was. I had grown to be a good man. But what she hadn't counted on was the day this… this mockery of the human condition… She hadn't counted on when it wouldn't play into my plans.

"How you do want me?"

"I want you to love me, with every break you take." I smiled at her with a deep sadness. "And you never will."

"Toni, I was in love with you. I still am," she declared. "I love you. You wanted someone to put you back together, well then, here I am. I want to do that for you."

I stroked her cheek with a gentleness only a real butch could somehow have. "You don't love me, Kat. And you never will. You said it once, and you were right. Let's not try to fool ourselves again."

"I was wrong," she argued and tried to kiss me again. I stopped her.

"No you weren't. As much as you want to, Kat… you could never love someone like me."

"Who is the hell is someone like you?" she yelled as I started to walk away. "I could love you. I do."

"Someone like me…" I smiled. "I made a promise to a girl, Kat."

"Gabi," she spat.

"And I aim to keep it," I finished. I gazed at the floor sadly and started walking again, into the kitchen, closer to the door.

"What promise did you make her?" Kat wanted to know as she followed me.

"I said I'd never forget. You might make me forget, Kat. And never is a promise," I explained firmly.

"Never isn't a promise," Kat told me bitterly. "Never is a lie. And a wish. And a hope. But it's no promise. It's something people say when they can't find the words to say what they mean. Never is a lot of things, but it's no promise. It's just a prayer."

I watched her for a second and then kissed her, pushing her against the refrigerator. I kissed her three times, each one hard and fast, making desperate  promises that I'd never forget her either.

                Then I left.

.=.+.=.

"Kat." I repeat. "So you've heard more about Kat." I roll my eyes and look skyward. "No doubt from the two gossiping spinsters you used to room with?"

"Well," she meets my eyes. "Cassandra and Denise might have mentioned something."

"I imagine they've mentioned a lot of things, if I know them." I smile almost indulgently, because I do know them, and for some reason, I even love the little bitches. They grow on a fellow.

"Yeah…" She sighs. "They've mentioned a name or two or three or twelve."

"That few?" I laugh. "And here I thought the gals would make me out to be a bigger stud than I am. I'm disappointed. I thought I might have a reputation to live up to." She smiles at me for this- this was one of the things she'd always liked about. For all my demand for dominance, I was surprisingly passive on day to day issues. And I'm surprisingly passive about her tapping her old roommates for information on my personal life that's probably been demonized and distorted.

"So you have been seeing people?" she asks, and I think its actually just a point of curiosity. I nod.

"Yeah, I have." I grin. "Do you wish I'd said no?"

"Well…" she draws out the word and gives me an honest grin. "I did always like the idea of breaking someone."

I laughed aloud. "Sorry sweetheart, but I didn't curl up in my room with chocolates for months with "I Will Survive" on repeat." She laughs a bit at this imagery.

"But you know, it'd have been kind of nice if you did."

"I could say the same for you, but that's not true." I shrug nonchalantly. "I didn't really like the idea of you being sad, you know. I just wanted us to be okay." I give her a nostalgic look. "I don't know if you'll believe this, Gabs… but if you're happy, then I'm happy for you."

"You liar," she replies. "I wish I could say the same. The idea of you being miserable has rather grown on me." She's teasing me… I think.

"Well, that's sweet of you to say, darlin'."

"So you've been with a lot of girls since I skipped town?' she asks, her eyes pleading with me to tell the truth.

"Yeah," I say softly. I turn to face her directly. "But if it makes you feel better… those flames aren't even a spark compared to you." Something in my eyes must make her know I'm telling the truth… because I am.

.=.+.=.

                It was three months later when I saw Kat again. Strangely enough, it was at the same place I'd found her again last time. Just a bar where my old friends from high school and I liked to go and hang out when we were all back in town. I think there's a bar like Galena's in every town in America. Just… some little bar where college kids hang out and drink and shoot pool. There's absolutely nothing special about it. I really don't like bars, because there's something on the air that hurts me. It's regret. All those people trying to forget. But I realized that maybe they were trying to remember.

                Kat was standing, laughing with friends by the pool tables. I thought of ducking out before she could see me, but I didn't. And when she spotted me, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was like a fucken scene out of a fucken movie, where she says something to a friend she's with that you can't hear and then makes her way across the room to you. I don't know about you, but I always wonder what they say to the friend. Do they say they see a friend or do they wink and say a crush? Do they say they see someone they know? Have I become an old flame? I don't really know what I am to Kat. Right after we'd broken up, the first time, before I'd met Gabi, I'd run into her at some store. I don't even remember which one. I'd been with my friend, Keith, and when she'd walked away after an awkward, tense conversation, he'd asked, 'ex?' 'Yeah, she's an ex all right.' But now… I think she was just someone I used to know. Someone I used to run around with.

                "Toni," she said, her voice calm and sweet, the way it always was. I hated it when people said your name as a greeting.

                "Hi," I managed back, stuck in an awkward state. "How are you?"

                "I'm… I'm good." She gave me a grin. "How the hell have you been?"

                "Oh, you know." That's the only answer I can really give.

                "Yeah," Her voice softened, and her eyes sought out the floor. "I know."

                "So, uh," I shifted from side to side. "What have you been up to?"

                "Just the usual stuff. Classes. Work. I graduate this spring." I smiled, wistfully.

                "We're getting old, aren't we?" I smiled wider, shifting from nostalgic to happy. "Congratulations."

                "Old, but graduating." She nodded. "We're not that old yet. You graduate next spring, don't you?"

                "I might graduate in the winter, I might have the credits, if I can get into the classes." I glanced at the beer in my hand. "Do you see much of the old gang anymore?

                "Oh, not really. I imagine we'll all have to get together this Easter or something. Spring break maybe. Do you see them often?"

                "Just Dan, but he's my brother, so I can't help it." I laughed slightly, she did too. "I heard Alice is getting married. To Craig, I think. He's an okay guy."

                "Yeah, I met him a while back. He's not so bad." I nodded my agreement.

                "Amazing how time passes. I never thought I'd see Alice get married."

                "Me neither. Things sure change."

                "You haven't," I said, but I was only looking at her eyes. I didn't think they'd ever change. "You haven't changed a bit, Kat. You… you're exactly how I remember."

                "Do you remember a lot?"

                "Sometimes."

                The conversation stilled again. I hated it when things got awkward between us.

                "So I heard something that made me laugh the other day," she said, reviving the conversation.

                "Oh yeah, what's that?" I leaned against the wall and watched her. She was still so much the same as she'd always been.

                "Well, I was talking to Matt the other day. He told me you had a crush on me back in high school."

                I laughed, it was good laugh, but a nervous one. "He told you that, did he?" I gave her an honest smile. "It's true. I had a huge crush on you in high school. Pretty actress up on stage that I had to watch from the booth."

                "Why didn't you ever tell me?" she asked, looking at me, as if studying me.

                "Honestly?" I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't really know. I suppose I was scared."

                "Scared of what?"

                "Getting disappointed." I looked over at the pool tables, where her friends were still playing. "That's the only thing I've ever really been scared of." I bit my lip. "I met this girl once, went out a few times, and when she decided she didn't want to see me again, at least not that way, she thought I'd be mad. But I wasn't. I couldn't fathom being mad about something like that. But I was disappointed."

                "Did I ever disappoint you?"

                "I think you know the answer to that."

                She nodded. "I know. I wish I hadn't disappointed you, but maybe that's the way things go?" She looked off into the distance for a second, as if studying an invisible object I couldn't see. "Did Gabi ever disappoint you?"

                I gave her a somber look. "Yeah, by the time we were over, I was disappointed. I don't know if she disappointed me or if I did, but I ended up disappointed all the same."

                "Yeah?"

                "Yeah," I confirmed. "And after that well… I'd just gotten so tired of being disappointed."

                "Yeah… so had I," she said sadly. We both looked way.

.=.+.=.

                "You can't mean that," she says. I think the idea that no one can compare to her scares her. Or maybe she just feels guilty. After all, I couldn't be with Kat. But she can be with Woody. If I had it in me, I might be angry or bitter over that. But I don't have it in me. Instead I'm just jealous.

                "If you don't think I mean that…" I sigh. "I tried, Gabi. I wanted to find another girl that would make me half as happy as I'd been with you. I thought I could deal with that, to be with them, to have your memory, I thought that'd be enough. I could get by. So I tried. I went through all the fucken motions. But it doesn't work that way."

                "No, I suppose it doesn't. I'm… I love Woody, Toni." She says it sadly. I'm sure she is. I'd be sad too if I loved Woody. But I wouldn't be. I hate Woody. But Gabi loves her. And that's what matters,

                "Leather and Irish Springs soap," I say softly. "You said you'd never forget."

                "I didn't forget…" she replies quietly. "I just let go. But I guess that's worse."

                "That's… that's forgetting in a way. It's forgetting why you didn't want to forget in the first place." I put my hand under her chin and lean over, kissing her forehead gently. "It's okay that you forgot. Never isn't a promise." I look away, hearing Kat's words. "It's a lot of things. But it's no promise. Maybe… it's just a prayer?"

                "A prayer. If I believed in God, I might run with that." I give her a wry smile.

                "I'm a Catholic, remember, I pray to the angels and the saints, and everyone." She smiles back, but it's sad, and she's blinking back tears. I'd always hated seeing her cry. She cried too much in the weeks before she left.

                "I'm sorry I got to forget," she chokes out quietly. "Because I know you never will."

                "I'm sorry you stopped believing…" I whisper. "Because I know I wish I could. You're lucky."

                "Believing in what?" she whispers back, touching my face softly. I can still feel all the emotions that have been here tonight. The anger, the pain, the desperation. But I think… I think that's part of love. But somehow, we've reached a delicate calm. I want to disrupt it. I want to grab her and kiss her hard or I want to hit something- not her- but the wall, or the air, or maybe Woody. But I don't want to. It'd odd, this… this conflict. I was so used to everything being in order but then all of this happened and well… it really messed me up if you want the truth.

                "Believing we'd find our ways back to each other. I thought we would. I mean, we said never. Never forget. And so I thought… with time… we might find our way back to each other. I believed that we would. I believed we were meant to be. And I believed next time… I'd never have to stop holding you."

                "But you had to… and I think if it happened again…" She shakes her head. "It would never happen again. I don't think I'd let you hold me again. I think it would ache."

                "But at the same time, I ache to hold you," I argue softly. The words smack her in the face. I finally understand a bit more. I see what we're doing. I'm fighting for us. I'm fighting on love's side with every word I say. Every I breath I take, I'm fighting on love's side.

                And so is she.

                She doesn't love me. She loves Woody. We both want love to win. But we both won't let it.

                "And I ache to be held by you," she says levelly, but her voice constricted by tears. "But… it's not that easy. I got to forget, every time I remember, it hurts again. Because every time I remember, I know I'm going to lose you again. And I am so tired of losing you." Her voice is not much more than sobs now, but I understand her words. They're writing themselves into my soul, the way I could never write onto hers.

                "I'm so sick of hurting you and getting myself hurt," I breathe at her. I grab her waist. I want to yell. I want to ask her in the only words I know how to use why she stopped remembering, and just when she stopped being my Jackson Pollock girl? I want to know where the passion went from her eyes, and I try to tell her the only way I know how, but it's not a way she knows how to listen.

                Because all I can do is look into her eyes.

                I don't know how else to talk to her.

                "Toni," she whispers. "I hate this."

                "I hate you," I say back, voice low. She nods.

                "I know." She stares back into my eyes. "I can't hate you. I think it's me that I hate sometimes."

                "Please," I whisper, sliding back into reality, my emotions falling apart for a second and losing their hold. There was one thing I hated worse than feeling bad, it was when Gabi felt bad. When she hurt, it hurt me. "Never hate yourself. I couldn't… I couldn't let you."

                "But I do… and sometimes I just hate you. And sometimes I hate everyone. But mostly I just try to hate you and end up hating myself. Because every time I think I hate you, I see your face in my mind and I'm damned all over again."

                "I'm tired of being damned," I tell her. I let go of her waist. "I'm tired of fighting myself. I'm tired of loving you and remembering and believing. So maybe this is where it ends. Tonight."

                "I would give you the world if I could," she says softly. Her eyes for the first time are glued to the floor boards. She used to glance at them, but her eyes would move back to my face. She doesn't now. She just stares at the floor.

                "But you can't." I smile bitterly. My words are bitter. I'm bitter. But I'm not. But I am. But I don't know. "I understand that, you know. I can't give you the world either. I gave you what little I had in me to give."

                "And I took the good stuff and ran. Or so you say." Her words- not so bitter, but it's there. Her choking sobs are gone.

                "No, you didn't." I shrugged and took a deep breath. "You took what I gave you, which was all the good stuff. I couldn't give you anything else. I gave you my heart, and my adoration. I gave you the things I never really showed anyone else. You inspired something in me. Tenderness, gentleness, something that wasn't there before. I was always tough, Gabi. Just never with you."

                She leans over and kisses my cheek. "You were always tough, but it was for me, not with me." She bites her lip, uncertainly. "I think that I knew that all along. And I think that must have been love. I hope so, because I know how much I loved you."

                "Thank you," I say softly. "For saying those words." I shut my eyes. "That's the thing right there, you know. I need to know that we were in love, because it makes all of this worth it. Because if we weren't in love, if I imagined it, then every time you got stuck in my head… wasn't worth it."

                I imagine this is the question I'd been wanting an answer to all these months: did she love me? And I know now she did. Maybe she still does. Maybe she didn't though- maybe she just thought she did.

                But the thing is… I think that's the same thing. I think to think you love someone, you must love, just a little, to make it feel real enough to believe.

                "Trust me, Toni…" she cups my cheek in one hand. "If you felt half of what I felt, then it was more than worth it."

                I reach up and set my hand over hers. I briefly shut my eyes, but they flutter open. I'm scared to close them for too long. When we first started going out, I was scared of a lot. I was so afraid I'd wake up one day and we wouldn't exist. That'd she'd have run away, when I thought she was walking away. That she'd fall, and I wouldn't be there to catch her. What ended up happening is that… we stopped existing in a moment, but I was very much awake when it happened. We stopped existing when she wouldn't let me hold onto her anymore. When she chose to fall. And in the end… she walked away.

                I let my eyes shut again, and it's okay, because I can still feel her hand hot on my cheek, like the hot tears that want to stream down them. But that doesn't happen this time. I won't let it.

                "Does Woody…" I bite my lip. "Does she wear a coat of many colors too?"

                "No, Toni," she says, her voice a low whisper. "Only you do."

                "Good," I murmur. "I don't want her to." I sniff, to stop from crying. I will not let another tear fall. "Does she-"

                Gabi cuts me off again, bringing her hand down to her side. But it still holds onto mine. "Only you do, Toni. Only you do everything you did. She'll never be you, Toni… she could never do things like you." There's a distinct poignancy in her eyes. She's still crazy for me, I can tell. I'm not sane when come to her either. But like it does her, it hurts me. "Only you did."

                "Wait." My voice drops even lower and I squeeze her hand. "Does she love you with her best Sunday heart?"

                Gabi gives me a secret smile. It's one you can't see unless you've seen it before. "I don't know yet."

                I've got so many more questions for her. The Spanish Inquisition has nothing on me. I want to know everything. Does Gabi look like an angel to Woody? Does Woody touch her like I did? Does she talk about Woody when she's painting? Does Woody know she was my Jackson Pollock girl?

                "Do… do you really like her?" I ask softly, a small smile finding its way to my lips.

                "Yeah," Gabi says, and she's crying, in the silent way, where the tears just magically find themselves on the face. "I really do."

                "What's on her bookshelf?' Gabi smiles.

                "She has one bookshelf in her apartment," Gabi whispers. "And it's filled with poetry." She grins softly at this memory. Gabi always loved poetry. "But she doesn't write any."

                "What do you suppose that means? The poetry on the shelves."

                "I think…" Gabi pauses, considering. "I think it means she really likes to read poetry."

                I laugh slightly. "You know, I think you might be right."

                "But you know what the real difference between you and Woody is?"

                "No," I say. "I don't."

                "You clap first." I give her a confused look.

                "Say what?"

                "When you go to a play and it ends, you start the clapping. Woody waits until someone else claps."

                "You and your riddles," I tell her fondly.

                "You and your secrets," she replies, in the same doting manner.

                "You know, I swore once I'd tell you all my secrets." Gabi squeezes my hand.

                "It's a good thing you didn't," she explains. "If you had, they wouldn't be secrets anymore."

                "I could the same thing about the answers to your riddles."

                "You could, and I could tell you the answers as you list off your secrets one by one. But really…" She gives me the most self-satisfied smirk. "Where's the fun in that?"

                "There isn't any," I agree. "No challenge. No mystery. No reason to keep going."

                "Are you looking for a reason to not keep going?"

                "Yes." I answer immediately. Honestly too. "I'd kill for a reason, a real reason to end this." I give another sigh. "I'd love to have a reason to forget and to stop believing and to move on with my life. But every time I look at you, I forget any reason I might have had."

                "Why is that?"

                "Because every time I look at you, I know how much I loved you. And I know how much I still do."

                She takes my other hand in her free one and smiles sadly. Tears still run on her face. I don't remember when they started, but they're not going to stop soon. "Leather and Irish Springs soap."

                I nod slowly. I remember. And she's telling me she does too. In her own trite way, she remembers it all.

                "I forgot so much," she tells me. "And I knew you never would. But I do remember sometimes." She leans in and kisses me chastely on the lips. "Don't let go of what we had, Toni."

                "I won't," I say and kiss her forehead. "I'll still be here for you, Gabi. Forever. And forever is a real promise."

                "I think it's a happier one than never," she responds, her words holding a glimmer of hope, that's shining in her eyes.

                "I think so too," I reply slowly. "I think you should go back inside and get some sleep."

                "I think I don't want to leave you just yet." I smile happily. She still makes me happy. But I finally get it, I get what she said when she told me I needed to stop holding her. When she chose to fall. I get what it means now. I won't always be in love with her… but I'll always remember that I was.

                Never is a promise for me. It's a prayer for Kat. And I think it's a word for Gabi.

                We both said- we both promised we'd never forget. I made that promise to Gabi, and then one night, I made it to Kat without any words. But the difference was, Gabi made it to me. Gabi said never.

                Kat said never once too, but like I said, I think she was praying. When she said she could never love me, she was praying she never would. But it was just a prayer. And to me, it was a promise. I promised because there was nothing else I could do. And Kat prayed because she was scared.

                And when Gabi said she'd never forget, I think she just didn't know what else to say.

                The thing is she won't always remember. It's a very lonely feeling, you know. I thought once that I couldn't bear it. I couldn't be the only person who remembered. I thought once that it would be too hard to take, that it'd be suffocating and I wouldn't be able to think or breathe anymore. I thought once the world would come crashing down.

                But that didn't happen. It's just a little lonely to be the only person who remembers that we were in love.

.=.+.=.

                Walking back into the house, a light on in the den caught my eye. Grabbing another bottle of beer- Gabi's father had made the mistake of telling me to help myself- I head in there. Bug sat in front of the TV, eyes intent on something.

"Gabi says you don't really like Woody?" Bug looks up from the couch to see who asked the question.

"She's all right, I guess," Bug answers. I sit down next to him, shooting him a look in the glow of the television set.

"Yeah, I reckon she's all right. Your sister sure seems to like her, anyway."

"Yeah, I guess she does. That's what's important, right?" I shrug and focus on the screen.

"Yeah. But that doesn't mean you have to like whoever she brings home, you know? Hell, you don't even have to like me, Bug."

"But I do like you, Toni," he assures me. "I think part of the reason I don't like Woody is that she's a lot like you, but she tries too hard at it."

"Damn," I reply, "And here I thought she was better at being me than I was." He chuckles slightly at this and changes the channel from ESPN to another mindless music video on MTV. Bug was the kind of conformed teen guy with the guitar slung over his back and his hair kept long, who thought he was tortured and special. But the thing was, he did it because he was really like that, not because it was cool. Bug's tall body with oversized limbs from adolescence were a great metaphor for the way he was… He didn't quite fit anywhere in particular.

"She's not. She's nothing compared to you. And what kind of name is Woody?"

"I wondered that myself," I chuckle a little bit. "But hey, what kind of name is Bug?"

He glares at me. "It's better than what's on my birth certificate."

"I know that, man, but her name's no reason not to like her."

"Do you like her?" Bug demands, his tone making me cut through the bullshit.

"Well…" I grin slightly. "Not at all."

"Exactly." He knows he's won the first round of the argument. "Do you want them to break up?"

"Not really," I say, and I'm even being honest. "I get the feeling Woody's gonna be around for a long time, and you and I just got to get used to it. And I get the feeling Gabi likes Woody a lot. And I don't want her to be sad. I don't like the idea of her crying."

"You know, for the first couple of weeks she came home, she moped around for a couple of weeks without you. She sure missed you, Toni." He shoots a curious look at me. "I told her to stop acting like such a dope. Missing you and all. She had to get over herself. And then she met Woody, and it's like she forgot all about you."

"I'm not sure if I think that's a bad thing, Bug," I tell him. "Maybe it's for the best. I don't want her to be sad."

"But she is sad," he argues. "I don't like Woody, Toni. She's loud and she's bossy and it's like Gabi's all… I don't know what the word is… it's like Woody's presence consumes her or something. She's not Gabi when she's with Woody."

"People bring out different sides of people," I reply. Even though I know exactly what he means. And I don't like it either. "She and Woody are different than her and I are."

"But Woody's not right for her like you are, Toni!" he protests vehemently. "Woody's… If Toni stays with her, she's going to turn out as a doting sidekick. I don't want her to be."

"Bug, I don't want that for her anymore than you do. But I can't do anything to stop it. Your sister's a grown woman. She knows what she's doing." Or at least I hope she does, I finish silently.

"Don't you still love her, Toni?" he demands, and in his still child-like idealism, he must believe love conquers all. It's a harsh truth that it doesn't.

"Of course I still love your sister, Bug." I stared at the music video to avoid looking him in the eyes. "But that doesn't mean what it used to. It's not my right to judge what's between her and Woody. I lost that right a long time ago."

"She'd break up with Woody if you asked her to. She's still in love with you, Toni." His eagerness ripped a whole through my heart. I want things to be that simple again.

"No, she's not." I sigh. "She's not in love with me anymore, Bug. She's in love with Woody. And Woody's a good guy, believe it or not. I don't really like Woody- she's too much like I am. And I'm not sure I want Gabi to date anyone like me. But Woody's not bad- she'll take care of her. And I want Gabi to have someone to take care of her."

"She doesn't need someone to take care of her."

"No, you're right," I admit honestly. "But I need her to have someone to take care of her."

"Why?" His eyes show me that he really just doesn't understand that. He doesn't understand why I'm not up on my white horse, rescuing his sister, and taking her off into the sunset. He thinks Woody knocked me off my horse- he doesn't understand yet that Gabi was the one who pushed me off. Not that it really mattered. Gabi was the kind of girl who was destined to push her knight off and ride off into the sunset without anyone's help. The best a fellow could hope for was to be able to watch.

I take the remote and mute the TV, turning to face him on the couch. "I'm going to let you in some secrets, Bug." I grin at him. "I love your sister. But she doesn't love me. And I don't think she ever did. But she thought she did, and that's what matters. But I don't think she was in love with me."

"Why not?"

"See, what happens is girls see me. And they see what I am. They see a big, strong butch. And they see a writer and they see a poet. And they take these things and they make an illusion. Your sister made one, so has every girl I've ever dated. They don't fall in love with me… but they fall in love with the idea of me, Bug. And when they find out I'm not, they try to make me into it. But that doesn't really work out. Because I'm not that."

"What do they make you into?" he wants to know.

I laugh. "I've got this theory, that girls don't fall in love with me, but they fall in love with the words I can write. I think that's what they make me into." I sigh. "And then when we break up, they meet someone like Woody, someone with this huge personality, the kind you can't mistake, and they like that Woody is everything they thought she was. And that's good enough."

"So what?" he demands. "Are you saying she's settling on good enough instead of what she deserves?" Bug stands up and turns the television off, cutting the lights from the room. A lamp comes on instead and I can clearly see the pain in his face as he's starting to learn a little bit more about life. I feel very old for some reason, as I realize the lessons I've learned over time. That sometimes love isn't enough. That things don't always work out the way we want them to. That you've got to hold on to what you had to live. That you have to let things go. That there some things in life worth stepping aside for. And that that doesn't mean you're surrendering. That it hurts to do the right thing.

But that you still have to.

                I realize I'm trying to explain love to him. And I never knew the words to explain love, I really just didn't. When I was his age, I was wondering if it took a long time to outgrow love. I was already tired of it, because I saw it in the face of every girl I saw and it was confusing and it scared me. Even though now I'll never say that I could have been, or I should have been, or I must have been in love with all those girls… late at night, I get that happy sad song stuck in my head, and it's one about love. I can't explain why I get it. Just do. Can't explain the feelings I had when I was his age any more than I can explain the ones I have now. They're just stuck in my head.

He grips the back of one of the maroon armchairs, and I can see his face asking me to answer all the questions he's having. I want to. "No. She's not settling. She's going with what's right for her. You can't fault her for that, Bug." I sigh slightly. "I wish I could say something to make it all make sense."

"It doesn't make sense," he tells me. "It just seems like… It seems like you… You tried to so hard for her, Toni, and what do you have to show for it?" He kicks the rug, making it rumple up. "You were the one who helped her. You were the one who sent her home, to make her happy… and you don't have her anymore! Woody does!"

"Sit down, Bug," I order. He complies. "I'm going to tell you this now. It's true when they say nice guys finish last. But Bug, they also finish with something worth finishing for."

"Are you saying Gabi's not worth finishing for?" he demands. I shake my head.

"That's not it at all. I'm saying Gabi isn't a prize to be won- she's already been won. By Woody. And I'm not saying I couldn't win her back. I'm not saying I don't want to. I'm saying I'm going to let her finish without me."

"You're just gonna give up on her?" He stares at me in utter disbelief.

"No… this isn't giving up, Bug." I pat him on the shoulder. "When you love someone, Bug, when you really love someone. Really, truly love them, sometimes, you have to let them finish without you."

"Then why are you here tonight?"

"Part of me not walking away… is her not letting me." I run my finger through my hair. "You'll understand when you're older, Bug, I know you hate to hear that. But you will. I'm going to be around as much as she wants me to be. I'll be here for her. But I won't be here for her like Woody is. I'll let her finish, and finish all in good time."

He is silent at first, digesting what I think is his first real taste of adult honesty. Bug is a fifteen year old boy in a body too big for him that it's made him clumsy. His mind is growing too big as well. He's growing up. His mind is outgrowing his body. He's long since outgrown his name, but it occurs to me I don't know his real name. I just have to believe that Bug is better than the name on his birth certificate like I've been told. He's just growing up. Like I did once, a long time ago.

"Did she really only love you because you were a writer?" he asks finally.

"It's more complicated than that," I explain. "But on a basic level, yeah. She was more in love with the words I could write, than ones I knew how to say."

"Girls will sleep with you if you're a writer?"

"More likely a poet," I say, giving him a wry smile. "Girls will even sleep with you if you're a bad poet." He chuckles a bit at this.

"Why do you write?"

"I write to remember, partly… but that's only one the surface." I stand up. "But more than that, I write because I hurt, and my words are the best way to show it." I stop in the doorframe. "Are you coming upstairs?"

"No," he says. "I'm going to watch a little TV yet." I nod.

"Hey, Bug," I say turning back to him. "Don't ever change."

My ex-girlfriend's kid brother turns and smiles at me. He understands.