Chocolate Hazelnut Marble Cake
My underwear drawer was a hodgepodge of comfort—multicolored cotton and coordinated practicality. “Casually alluring” was the look I had in mind for my big date with Owen, but everything I owned screamed, “No-one but me has seen my smalls in years!”
Which was true.
I owned two bits of skimpy purple lace—an unsubtle hint from my best friend, Maggie, that I needed to stop living like a recluse—but one pair had a hole in the side where I’d stuck my thumb through while trying them on. I wanted everything to be just right tonight. I wanted to look like a girl who knew her way around a bedroom, even though Owen had probably guessed by now that I wasn’t.
In the two months since our first date for tea and Owen’s truly orgasmic cake, we’d executed a complicated two-step, with Owen trying to pull our friendship to the next level and me digging my heels in to hold it back, wary of getting too involved and always feeling guilty about Gabe. But after Owen kissed me for the first time, my steps back had become smaller and less convincing, and Owen’s two-step had turned into more of a tango, until I’d found myself whirling along with him, my fear of missteps diminishing, and the passion of the dance glowing steadily between us.
Now, as I finished preparing myself and my specialty chicken pesto—the one foolproof dish in my limited repertoire—I was determined to put any remaining doubts behind me and dive headfirst into the Owen Tango. I told myself, for about the 749th time, that it was time for me to be happy again. I had a quick shot of the cooking wine to calm my nerves and boost my resolve, and when I heard the front doorbell ring at a minute past seven, I put on a casually alluring smile to match my casually alluring underwear, and went to let Owen in.
I opened the door to Owen’s goofy grin and he handed me a slightly lopsided, but deliciously gooey-looking cake. He stepped inside, pecked me on the cheek, and picked up the conversation, as if we were old friends. We talked through the entire meal I’d managed to pull together, never stopping until I found myself collapsed on the worn lumpy couch in the shared living room, and using Owen’s lap as a pillow. As he reached over and poured the last of the wine into my glass, I bent my body to move with him and gazed through slackened eyes at the swirls of his chocolate hazelnut marble cake. The three missing slices, one for me, one for him, and the third shared between us and the couch cushions, exposed a jigsaw puzzle of flavors—dark, rich chocolate sending fingers into the nutty brown hazelnut cake—intertwining, the two flavors blending into one. If I wasn’t ready for Owen in this moment of bliss, I doubted I ever would be.
Owen stroked his fingers through my hair and I melted further into him, like a contented cat, or in my case, a contented Kat. I was afraid if I let my eyes flicker closed that I’d drift into the most peaceful sleep of my life, which would leave Owen to clear up the disaster I’d created in the kitchen, not to mention severely dampening the mood. Through my satisfied haze I was aware of Owen setting down his wine glass and shifting underneath me until he had turned around to lay beside me. I wriggled back into the fold of the brown velvet cushions to make room for him, as the warmth of his body radiated into mine. Outside, it was raining again. It pounded against the window, but nestled into the couch, I didn’t care.
“That was the best dinner I’ve had in a long time,” Owen said, snuggling closer. “Who knew you had hidden talents?”
“And cooking’s only the beginning,” I murmured.
“Hmm,” he said. “Can’t wait to discover the rest.”
“Well, I’m a whizz at climbing trees.”
“Could be handy.”
“I can recite the alphabet backwards.”
“Impressive, but useless.” His face disappeared into the crook of my neck and his warm breath wafted over my skin. The response in my body caused my brain to fog, so that I doubted I could get through the alphabet forwards, let alone backwards. “What else?” he asked.
“I know how to polish a pair of shoes to pass military inspection,” I mumbled.
“Dare I ask how you learned that?”
“My dad taught me,” I said. “I always had to have shiny shoes when we went to visit my grandma. And a clean neck, too.”
He propped himself up on one arm. “Your neck looks very clean to me and I’ve inspected it closely.” His face, for the first time all night, turned serious. “Do you miss him?” he said.
I shifted under Owen’s gaze, disappointed that he’d broken the spell of the moment, but glad for a second to regain my composure. One of the few personal details I’d shared with Owen was about my dad. When he’d asked about my parents, I’d told him about my dad and his rules, the rigid exterior that masked the funny, softhearted man inside, and the fire that had killed him when I was 12. Owen hadn’t pried further until now, and I hadn’t offered.
“I don’t miss him the way I used to,” I said, testing out how it felt to talk about it again. “At first you think you’ll never get over something like that. After he died, he was the first thing I thought about every day. I viewed everything that happened to me through a kind of filter of him not being there. Over time, that faded, like I just got used to him not being there and it was part of who I was.”
The first part of that had been true about Gabe, too. He had occupied so many of my waking thoughts over the past three years. It was also true that the hurt had slowly begun to fade, even if it hadn’t gone away. I could have told Owen that, but I didn’t. If I was going to take this next big step with Owen, I needed to do it without Gabe in my head.
“Sometimes I wish he was still here,” I said, talking about my dad again, but still thinking about Gabe. “Like telling him about my studies and knowing he’d be really proud, but it’s funny how time makes it easier.”
Owen wrapped his arms around me and pulled me towards him, our bodies blending together like the marble cake. “I can’t imagine losing someone like that,” he said.
I didn’t respond. My dad’s death had once been the worst thing that had ever happened to me and it was years before I could talk about it without my voice breaking into fragments in my throat. Then, after Gabe, it became the second worst thing that had ever happened to me, and the one I was able to talk about. But telling Owen about my dad had been much easier than I’d expected. Could I tell him about Gabe, too? Could I get the story out without letting my emotions flood out with it?
I hadn’t talked about Gabe to many people. Just as it had once been so hard for me to talk about my dad, Gabe’s death wasn’t something I could share easily. The details of what happened and the feelings I still carried around for him were too tender to expose. But it was more than that. There was something about Gabe that was purely mine. He held a corner of my heart that could never be filled by anyone else. Talking about him to people who didn’t know him felt like giving away fragments of his memory and if I gave up too many, soon there’d be none of him left for me. I’d have to tell Owen about him someday, but not tonight. I promised myself that, before I went home to meet Mai, I’d tell Owen everything about Gabe.
“Do you ever think about what happens to people when they die?” said Owen.
“I’ve spent more time thinking about that than I care to admit,” I said, forcing my mind back into the room and rejoining Owen.
“I don’t really believe in heaven, at least not the fluffy little clouds and harps variation. But we have to go somewhere, I suppose. It’s too hard to believe that the people we love just stop existing.”
“What about those people who claim to communicate with the other side, with spirits or whatever?”
I shrugged, thinking about the times I wished I could have communicated with my dad or been able to talk to Gabe again, even just once. “The scientist in me wants to see the proof—specific, measurable, and documented evidence of life after death.”
“And what about the girl who lost her dad?”
“She’s not ready to believe he simply disappeared. There’s a part of him that’s still here. I can’t see it or touch it or get it to move a wooden marker around a board, but it’s there. I can feel it.”
“In defense of science,” said Owen, “if energy is always constant, then they have to go somewhere, their essence, I mean.”
“So, are there billions of souls all stuck in a cosmic landfill somewhere?”
“That’s a terrible thought.”
“If everything has to go somewhere when it’s used up, where do they all go?”
What I hoped was that the souls of my dad and Gabe were floating around somewhere happy, or maybe even keeping an eye on me, but I’d yet to see any proof of that, and goodness knows I’d looked. “Maybe they get recycled. That would be the most efficient use for them.”
“Human recycling. I like it.”
“But where’s the evidence?”
“Maybe you could just choose to believe,” he said.
I shook my head. “How very unscientific of you.”
“I think I’ll come back as a lion next time,” said Owen. “Lie around in the sun all day, send the Missus out to hunt my dinner, eat before everyone else, and go back to sleep.”
“I’m coming back as anything, as long as I’m somewhere warm and dry,” I said, aware again of the rain pelting against the window and a draft blowing down the boarded-up chimney.
“It’s alright for you,” said Owen. “I have to go out in that sooner or later.”
As he pulled away, a river of cool air wafted between us, and all I wanted was to close the gap and feel his warmth again.
“Or you could just stay,” I said, in a way that I hoped closed off any other option.
We left the kitchen in a mess and I led Owen up to my room. I tilted my desk lamp into the corner to create the closest thing to mood lighting that I could and flicked off the ceiling light. We stood in the middle of the room, our arms wrapped around one another. For a moment, he seemed hesitant and I wasn’t sure what he thought would happen next. A fleeting image of Gabe passed through my mind, a reminder of why the pace with Owen had been so slow. I pushed it aside. Owen had been more than patient with me and it was time I took the lead and switched gears.
I pulled Owen towards me and kissed him. His lips were warm and tender against mine, and I felt the faintest prickle of stubble from his chin before his skin seemed to blend into mine. I opened my mouth and felt him fit perfectly against me. It was one small point of connection, but enough to send all the feelings I’d kept at bay coursing through my veins. And suddenly that one point of connection wasn’t enough. I wanted to be with Owen in every way imaginable. I wanted to know his thoughts and hear his dreams, but most of all, I wanted to get to know his body.
And then his hands were in my hair and mine found their way under his shirt, across the warm firmness of his lower back, and around to his belly and the fuzz of hair that ran across the top edge of his jeans. His lips traced the length of my neck, and when his teeth grazed the rim of my collarbone, I pulled open his belt, flipped the top button of his jeans, and maneuvered him towards the bed.
I kneed Owen in the thigh as I twisted to escape from my jeans, frantic to get my skin closer to his. He thumped his heel against the wall as he attempted to use one set of toes to peel off the sock from the opposite foot, but finally we made it down to our undies. And there we were on the edge of a new frontier. If I was going to back out, if I was going to scurry back to the safety of my memories of Gabe, now would be the time. I took a long look at Owen’s naked torso and pale, lean thighs next to my own untouched body. A brief pause of anticipation hung in the air around us, as if he too was waiting to see if I’d tiptoe across the line. I smiled and let my eyelids drift down. There would be no more tiptoeing anymore. I draped my arm around Owen’s waist and pulled our bodies together. The cells of our skin melded together and a tingle of belonging radiated around my body. This was it: The Next Big Step.
I hadn’t fully understood how much I’d missed human touch until I felt Owen’s skin next to mine. It was as if I’d been holding something inside me, clenching it in every molecule of my body, and the touch of skin was the release valve that let it go. Free from its long confinement, desire surged through my body, until it barged through the exit of my tear ducts. I buried my face into Owen’s shoulder, blinking away the wetness and desperately hoping he wouldn’t notice.
“Are you okay?” he said.
I wanted to tell him I was fine, but I wasn’t sure I could say it convincingly, so I nodded into his armpit.
He pulled back and bent down to look at me. “Are you crying?”
I tried to laugh. “No.”
“What’s wrong? Don’t cry. Why are you crying?” He sounded panicked and it made me want to pull him closer again.
“I just feel really good,” I said.
“Do you always cry when you feel good?”
“As a general rule, no, but I’m making an exception for you.”
“I’m honored,” he said. “I think.”
He reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. It was such a tender gesture and it made me think, I can trust you.
“I think I like you,” he said, and I knew he meant more than that.
“I like you, too,” I said, meaning the same.
“No, I mean I really like you.”
“I know, and I really like you, too.”
“Good,” he said, and pushed himself closer towards me.
I closed my eyes and felt the trail of electrons as Owen ran his fingers over my shoulder, grazing the edge of my breast, and tracing the bottom of my ribs. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be touched, but my cells hadn’t, and they sprung to life under Owen’s gentle hands.
His were man’s hands, older and perhaps more confident than the hands that had touched me before. Gabe’s hands had been different. We’d both been young and inexperienced when we’d met, and for me, almost everything had been new. With Gabe, there had been a spark that had been so strong it could jump between us, even across a gap. So, when we’d finally come together, our bodies were already primed, and the spark had been more like a bolt of lightning.
Not that it had been all smooth moves and waves of passion. At first we’d been caught up in the frenzy of exploration, but over time, we learned how to express what we felt for one another. Even in our most clumsy moments, that spark of something special had always been there.
There was a spark with Owen, too, but it was different to the one I’d felt with Gabe, and even though Owen’s fingers on my skin flashed with electricity, that deep, soul-level connection I’d felt with Gabe wasn’t there. I’d never expected it would be, but at that moment, I didn’t care.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons I’d stayed alone for so long, knowing that no one could ever match up to Gabe. And there I was, lying in bed with Owen, already comparing him to Gabe. In almost every way, Owen measured up.
And now that he’d touched me, now we’d stepped into a new realm together, I was certain that he’d keep measuring up and that he’d be just what I needed to help me get over Gabe. I didn’t want to forget Gabe, but I didn’t want to be stuck clinging on to the past forever. You have to move forward, Kat, I told myself, and Owen looked like a very good path to take.
I moved onto my back, pulling Owen gently with me and sending him a message that I wanted him to help me keep moving forward. He felt good against me. No, more than that, he felt like he belonged. I smiled at him. Through his ridiculously long lashes, his speckled blue eyes smiled back at me. Maybe I could fall in love with you, I thought, and kissed him just to make sure. Owen moved closer and I hooked my leg around the back of his. But as I brought my arm around his shoulder and down towards his abdomen, I felt the buckle on my watchstrap catch on something and Owen let out a yelp.
“What?” I said, pulling away. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” he said, glancing down at his chest, before pulling me back towards him. “I think you scratched me with your watch, that’s all.”
I looked at the long red welt that had sprung up on Owen’s delicate pale skin. There was no blood, as far as I could tell, thank goodness. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
Owen rubbed the spot and laughed. “It’s okay, no harm done, but perhaps you should take your watch off before you damage anything more delicate.” He reached down to help me with the buckle, and without thinking, I yanked my hand away.
He looked at me and I could tell he was trying to read my face to work out what was going on. I looked away.
“Is that your dad’s watch?” he said, peering at the worn leather strap that could almost fit twice around my wrist.
For a fraction of a second, I considered telling him the truth, but instead, I nodded. “I never take it off.”
He was quiet for a moment, and very still. My cheeks burned hot and my tongue stung in the spot where the truth would have tasted sweet.
Owen nodded. “I’m sorry I pried,” he said, his eyes telling me that he’d tasted my lie, too. “It’s none of my business.”
Owen looked as if he was weighing his options, perhaps wondering if there was some way to recharge the electric field that had danced between us moments ago. But I’d already pulled the plug. In the space between us, the truth I’d kept from Owen grew, filling the gap and pushing us further apart. I could have changed everything. I could have told him about Gabe, explained why I’d been so hesitant in our relationship, asked him to try again. If anybody would have understood, it would have been Owen. He would have given me the space and the time I needed until I was ready. All I had to do with tell him the truth. But instead, I swallowed my lie whole and said nothing.
“I think I’m tired,” he said. “All this serious talk.”
He shot a sliver of a glance my way. One final chance for me to regain his trust.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but nothing more.
“I should go,” he said, climbing out of bed. In the last instant before he slipped back into his clothes, I let my eyes scan over his body one last time and cursed myself for blowing what should have been a perfect night.
In the darkness, long after Owen had left, the weight of Gabe’s watch still pressed on my wrist, anchoring me to my past while my future drifted away.