I should have known it was Marina and not Cadu. I should have known from the moment I opened the box, setting aside the cover and pulling back the tissue paper, revealing the most beautiful birthday present that I had ever received.
I should have known by the way I smiled; a smile so big and so lasting that it wore my cheeks out. I should have known by the butterflies in my stomach, the sweat in my palms and the rush of blood behind my belly button.
These were all the things that happened to me, sitting alone on the edge of my bed as I held up the beautiful garment, examining the details of its intricate construction. I rubbed the fabric against my cheek. Suddenly giddy, I couldn't wait to try it on.
These were all the things that I felt, and I should have known that Cadu was not the cause, was not the consciousness behind the gift - that he was not the one to set all those feelings in motion.
But I realized it too late, and I realized it all at once.
I realized it months later, after the decision was already made; the decision to divorce. I realized it while I was doing laundry, sitting in the living room alone, surrounded by boxes with Cadu's name on them; boxes full of picture frames, coffee cups, and kitchen tools.
I realized it while I was folding the laundry, matching the socks in pairs, and the bras, and the underwear.
Suddenly, I was struck with an anxiety, remembering the way Marina had rubbed her foot against mine, remembering the way she had intertwined our fingers and looked at me from beneath her eyelashes.
Now that we are dating, I thought, now that we might...oh, god, she might...and then, I might...
Holding a pair of old underwear in my hands, I felt terribly unprepared.
I need to go shopping!
But then I remembered the birthday present, the one that Cadu had given me and I'd never had a chance to use.
She's already seen it, I thought. She won't be impressed.
Yes, I remembered the morning very well, the morning after that amazing birthday party! I was a mess, my hair was a mess and my face was a mess from crying - from my fight with Cadu. I remembered that she had called me beautiful anyway.
And then...a strange feeling came over me. I remembered the image of her, sitting at the table, a coffee cup in her hands. She held it up to her mouth but she did not drink. I remembered the way her jaw had dropped when I pulled open my robe. She had thought I was beautiful, I knew that much, but there was something else in the way she had stared, a surprised sadness, like she had wanted to say something, but was biting her tongue.
Oh, my god! I thought.
I jumped up from the couch, tossing the remaining laundry into a pile.
I ran to the bedroom and pulled open the top drawer of my wardrobe.
Oh, my god! I thought again. I'm such a fool!
"You're a complete ass!" I shouted to the room, clutching the garment to my chest. "And all that time praising Cadu! 'He's so kind! He's so sensitive! He really knows me!' God, she must hate me!"
I paced back and forth at the foot of my bed.
"I have to talk to her," I said to myself. "I have to apologize...and thank her!"
I turned to the clock. It was already past eleven; late, but I knew she'd still be up.
But what about Ivan? I thought.
I picked up my phone, dialing Helena's number.
"Clara? What's wrong?" she said in a muffled voice.
"Nothing, nothing. Are you asleep?" I whispered.
"Not anymore," she said.
"I have a big favor to ask you," I said.
"Oh, no," she said, but she came right over, like I had asked, bringing her own pillow and plopping herself down on my couch.
"Kisses," I said, slipping out the front door, wearing a coat that was much too long and much too heavy for the weather.
If she had noticed it, she didn't say anything.
I drove recklessly. It was raining. The water pounded on my windshield so fast that the wipers could barely keep the glass clear.
I had a moment's deja vu, recalling the night that I had fled Marina's home, leaving in the middle of a storm while she was in the shower. I had fled that night because my heart was beating too fast, and my hands were shaking too hard, and my throat was too dry. I had fled because, sitting on the edge of Marina's bed, running my hands over the duvet, it was easy to picture myself there, just beneath the sheets, waiting for Marina to come back with damp hair and a white bathrobe; it was easy to imagine giving in to my desire - just once. I fled because I was sure my body would betray me, betray Cadu, betray Ivan and the family we had worked so hard to keep.
But now, I was driving back, just as reckless, just as desperate, just as unsure; but whereas before, I was like an animal fleeing a fire, now I was like a moth, irresistibly attracted, flying straight into the searing flame; whereas before, I was afraid my body would betray me, now I was horrified to realize that I was the one who had betrayed Marina.
"I'm such a fucking idiot!" I shouted as I bashed the steering wheel with the palm of my hand.
Before I pulled into the driveway, I cut out my lights, not wanting to wake anyone, especially not wanting to wake Vanessa. I was in no mood to put up with her shit. I cut the lights and the engine as soon as I could, parking a little further from the house than I normally would, then scurrying up the long drive with my umbrella over head, and my hand clasped at the neck of my coat.
I slipped into the house unnoticed, and I went straight upstairs. I was surprised to find Marina's door left open just a crack, and her light on. I stepped lightly to the door and listened, hoping to God she was alone. Oh, I couldn't bear it if she wasn't.
I heard the sound of a turning magazine page, and then I heard her sigh.
She's alone and awake! I thought.
I smiled and knocked softly with the back of my knuckle.
"Yes?" she said casually.
I poked my head in the door, but she was laid out on her stomach on her bed, laying in the middle of a sea of photography and design magazines. She didn't see me.
I walked in and closed the door behind me, locking it. Still, she didn't look up.
I watched her for a moment. She wore a t-shirt that fell from her shoulders and jean shorts that revealed her slim legs. One leg she raised up behind her, turning her foot at the ankle, and then pointing her toe toward the ceiling.
Who does she think it is? I thought. Vanessa? Does Vanessa visit her room in the middle of the night often?
I brushed the thought aside.
"Hi," I said, suddenly unable to think of any other way of announcing myself.
She turned around then, and when she saw me, she froze, as if she couldn't believe her eyes.
"Clarinha!" she said, finally. "What are you doing here!?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "Is it too late?"
"No! No!" she said, jumping up from the bed and running to me. "I'm happy you're here. I'm just...surprised. That's all!"
She grabbed both of my hands.
"I should have messaged you," I said. "Or called. It's so late!"
"No," she said. "It's fine! You're always welcome here, you know that. At anytime!"
We stared at each other then. I looked at her face; her eager, pretty face.
Yes, of course it was her, I thought. Of course, she is the only one to give me such a gift.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" she said before turning her head to the window. "Oh God! It's pouring outside! Are you insane?"
"Yes," I said, my voice wavering. "Yes, I think so."
She smiled and shook her head slightly, as if she were unsure what was happening.
"Is everything okay?" she said, reaching for my face. "Is Cadu okay? Ivan?"
"Yes," I said. "Yes, everyone is fine. Cadu is fine. Anyway, I don't want to talk about him."
"I came to talk about you," I said. "About us."
"Oh," she said, looking scared now, because I probably looked scared.
And, in truth, I was scared.
She took a step away.
"Clarinha," she said, "please don't tell me that you need space again, that you're leaving...because I don't think I can bear..."
"No," I said, reaching for her. "No, no, no. It's not that."
"No, it's the opposite of that."
"I want less space," I said. "I mean, I want no space, between us."
"Okay!" she said, her face lighting up. "I was just thinking the same thing. You and Ivan can live here! Ivan loves the pool and it would be great to you have guys so close!"
"No, no," I said again. "That's not what I mean, either."
"Okay?" she said, now so unsure that she bit her lip.
"I mean, I want no space, right now, between us," I said, pointing back and forth between our chests. "I mean, between our hearts and our...bodies."
"Oh," she said.
She stood absolutely still, not coming closer to me, not moving away. She simply stared at the space between our chests, the space I had highlighted with my fingertip. Her eyes lingered there for a long time and then met my gaze.
"Oh," she said again, this time more softly, this time with a gentle smile.
I bit my lip as I pulled open my coat.
She watched my hands, and as the coat fell to my ankles, her jaw dropped. Her expression was so open, and so vulnerable, I felt like we were both naked already.
"Anyway, I know," I said, looking down because I felt self-conscious. "I know it's from you."
"Cadu told you?"
"No," I said, running my hands down the lacey material. "I just figured it out. Just now. Just tonight."
She swallowed hard.
"I'm sorry... I should have figured it out sooner."
"It's okay," she said, looking down, picking at her fingernails.
I reached for her hands. I pulled her close to me. Barefoot, she was shorter than me, and I had to tilt her chin up with my finger.
"Marina," I said. "I'm sorry. Truly."
I stroked her cheek with my thumb. I brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
"For what?" she said. "It's nothing."
"No," I said. "It's not nothing. I see your desire. I've always seen it...always. But I ignored it, because...because it was convenient for me. I accepted your love, your affection and your friendship, but I ignored your desire, and I'm sorry for that."
"And what about your desire?" she said. "Did you ignore that, too?"
"Yes. Couldn't you tell?"
"I guessed," she said. "And I hoped it was true so many times, but I love you so much Clara, that I was willing to just... let it go, to just… live without it."
I saw tears in the corners of her eyes.
"We don't have to live without it," I said. "We are both grown adults. Why shouldn't we act on these feelings?"
"Do you want to?"
I bit my lip, looking down at her face, which was so beautiful, so vulnerable and so full of love. I touched the tip of her nose with the tip of my finger.
"Yes...Yes, I want it very much."
She smiled, but her lip was trembling and her chest heaved with deep breaths. Finally, she wrapped her arms around my waist.
"Oh, Clara!" she said, embracing me. "I want you so much! I want you so much I can't bear it!"
Her words blew through my body like so many storms, and suddenly my hands were pulling her toward me; suddenly my mouth was pressed against her mouth, her cheeks, her nose and eyes; suddenly my hips were pressed against her hips.
"Wait!" she sighed between kisses. "Wait."
I pulled away, and she looked up at me with her deep brown eyes.
"What is it?" I said.
"It's just…" she stepped toward the bed.
I watched her go, watched the t-shirt fall from her shoulder, watched the muscles in her calf flex as she leaned forward. She began gathering up the magazines on the bed. She clutched them in a messy pile against her chest, struggling to keep them all from falling to the ground.
"It's just… I've thought about this moment for a very long time," she said.
She carried the magazines to the nightstand and dumped them there. Then she looked up at me with one hand on her hip and one hand running anxiously through her hair, her brows furrowed in concern. But even then she looked beautiful.
"I know," I said. "Me too...well, not in detail, I mean, not specifically, but I have been waiting...for this, maybe since the night we met."
"That's just the thing," she said. "I have been thinking in specifics. I've imagined all the details; what I would wear, what you would wear, how the lighting would be, what music would be playing."
I smiled and took a step toward her. I grabbed her hands in mine.
"Marina," I said, kissing her fingers.
"What? You think I'm pathetic, don't you?"
"No," I said. "I think you're used to being in control. But this is not a photoshoot."
"I know," she said. "But you know I'm a perfectionist. I just want everything to be perfect for you."
I pulled her closer to me. I pressed her hands against my heart, and then, I touched her cheek.
"Everything is perfect now," I said softly.
"No," she said. "My room is a mess, and my hair is a mess, and I'm just wearing these frumpy old clothes, and the lighting! The lighting is awful!"
I laughed at her then.
"You laugh, but it's very important to me!" she said.
"Fine," I said, reaching down, turning on the lamp on the nightstand.
Then I walked to the door and switched off the main light. The room became dark, save for the warm lamp light.
"Better?" I asked.
She said nothing, but she smiled.
Next, I stepped over to her, reaching for the clip that held her hair back. I pulled it out and set it on the night stand. Then, with both hands, I teased her wavy curls down around her shoulders.
"How pretty!" I said.
She rolled her eyes at me, blushing the whole time.
"Now," I said, taking a step back to get a better look at her. "About these frumpy, old clothes…"
Slowly, gently, I reached for the bottom hem of her shirt, and I pulled it up. She watched me for a moment before realizing my intention.
"Why don't we just take them off?" I said.
She laughed as I pulled the shirt over her head, and I laughed too, because she squirmed as if I were tickling her. But the truth was, I hadn't even touched her yet.
And when the shirt was dropped on the floor, I was struck dumb by the sight of her, standing there in only her jean shorts, her tanned skin radiating in the soft light. She bit her lip and looked shy. I'd never really seen her look shy before.
But before she had the chance to hide herself, I pulled her into my arms.
"How pretty," I whispered. "Very, very pretty."
I kissed the place where her neck and shoulder met. I ran my hands up her back, and I could not stop myself from squeezing her against me, pulling her into a great bear hug. She squeezed me back, and I felt her giggles through her ribs.
Then I leaned back, so that I could see the front of her. I traced a finger tip along her collarbone to the center of her chest, and then down her breastbone toward her belly. She shivered in my arms, and I saw goosebumps rise on her chest, casting tiny shadows in the lamp light.
"Very pretty," I said.
"Clarinha, I…" she started to say, but her voice got caught up.
When I looked into her eyes, I saw that she was crying.
"Oh, no!" I said, surprised. "Oh, no, no! What did I do? What did I say?"
I took her face in my hands, but she tried to look away, clearly embarrassed.
I tried to look into her eyes, but she pulled me into another embrace, burying her face into my shoulder and wrapping her arms around my back.
I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth, trailing my fingers up and down her back, and cooing into her messy hair.
"What's wrong?" I said after a while. "Won't you talk to me?"
She said nothing, but her breathing slowed. I heard a sniffle right against my ear. She took a deep breath and sighed, but she didn't loosen her grip on me.
"You know," I said, running my fingers through her curls, "I already knew your secret...so you don't have to be embarrassed."
"What secret?" she said, raising her head.
"I don't know," I said, shrugging my shoulder. "This whole casanova act you put on."
"Or, playgirl, whatever."
"Yes," I said. "Isn't that how you want everyone to see you? The artist playgirl who could seduce any woman she wanted to?"
She licked her lips and wiped her mouth.
"Am I right?" I said.
"Maybe I used to," she said. "But now that I've met you, everything has changed...I don't know what's happened to me!"
"The same thing that happens to everyone who falls in love," I said. I kissed her forehead, and she pressed her head against mine.
"What's that?" she whispered, her fingers on my lips.
"You've turned into a complete puppy dog," I said, kissing her fingers.
I saw her smile; saw her cheeks rise up just beneath her damp eyelashes. I could not stop myself from kissing her cheek, and then the other, could not stop myself from tasting her salty tears.
"And you don't mind?" she said, looking up.
"Mind?" I said, wiping at her cheeks. "Just look at these puppy dog eyes of yours. How could I ever mind this?"
"I love you," she said, leaning forward on her tippy toes.
"I love you," I said, kissing her.
I had kissed her first, but it seemed like all her confidence came rushing back at once, because soon her hands were all over my body, pulling at my hips and shoulders. Soon she had me right up against the bed. Soon, she kissed my neck and whispered, "Lay down."
I did as she said. I laid back on her bed, settling in between the pillows. She ran off then, with no explanation, but she stopped at the stereo, and I knew what she was about. She put on a song, the song we had danced to all those months ago. I felt the butterflies come right back. I rubbed my legs together in anticipation.
I watched her naked back as she swayed slightly. I watched her turn around slowly, pulling her hair to one side and letting it fall over her shoulder. I watched her every step as she made her way back to the bed. I watched her shoulders, and her breasts, and her stomach; I watched them all as my heart beat faster, waiting for her to join me, or touch me, or kiss me. I propped myself up on my elbows in anticipation.
I expected her to crawl right onto the bed, but she stopped short. She unbuttoned her shorts, letting them fall to the floor with a soft thwump. Then she smiled, running her own hand up her stomach. Just seeing that, I gasped.
I was shaking then, from head to toe, but I didn't dare stop her; I didn't dare move. No, I stared right at her fingertip, the one she traced over her own stomach and up her own neck.
I think I stopped breathing when she touched her own mouth.
Get over here! I thought. Get over here and touch me! Touch my body! My lips!
And she did. She crawled on all fours over the top of me, and of course, I couldn't stop my hands from grabbing at her. Nor could I stop my legs from wrapping around her waist. I pulled her down until she was pressed right up against my body.
I was trembling and I hated it and I loved it.
She kissed me on the mouth and then she said, "So, you like your birthday present?"
"Yes, very much," I said. "It's the best present I've ever gotten."
"Just wait," she said, pushing her thigh between mine. "It's gets even better."