Of Books and their Covers.
A little story about falling hard and fast.
It's the lovely Vancouver Canuck Girl's birthday, and I wanted to give her a little something to make her smile. VCG, you're one of the kindest, strongest women I know, and I love you heaps. Happy Birthday, girl! I hope you have a wonderful day.
My most sincere thanks to Hadley Hemingway for her unending help and support.
The clouds have been threatening rain all day, gathered dark and heavy over the city. All day, people have been casting glances skyward as they step out from the shelter of a lecture theatre or laboratory. And then, around three o'clock, the rain starts. There's no drizzly prelude, just a window-shaking crack of thunder, and then it's pelting down. Umbrellas flower on the footpaths and I'm suddenly surrounded by people as everyone surges towards the side of the walkway protected by shop awnings. A short woman with dark hair nearly takes my eye out with the corner of her brolly. My face splattered with water, I dive through the first open doorway I see.
The bookstore I've taken shelter in is warm and dry and smells of paper, ink, and stale coffee. I wipe my forehead on my sleeve and move further into the store. I have to hug my wet backpack close and twist sideways to get around the middle-aged woman gripping the handle of an enormous pram. She rocks it back and forth, and rain slides off the clear plastic cover she's tossed over her two boys. Water pools on the floor beside a set of dirty footprints.
I should've taken Mum's umbrella.
She poked me in the thigh with it as I was getting out of her car at the station this morning. "Take this."
This was one of those frigging huge Bunnings umbrellas, so I'd scoffed at her. "I'll be right." She opened her mouth to argue, but I jammed my headphones into my ears, slammed the car door, and sprinted towards the turnstiles. I'd made it to Platform 4 just in time to see the 8:13 pulling out.
I still made it to my nine o'clock class with plenty of time to spare, but then I don't actually need to take the 8:13. Both the 8:26 and 8:39 get me to class on time—even the 8:52 is fine, though that one means I have to really hustle to get from the station to my lecture before Chris locks the doors at 9:05.
It's not that I like to be early for Stats—I'm usually one of the last people into class. It's just that the 8:13… well, she catches the 8:13. Hat Girl.
I saw her the first week of semester. Slightly hung over and still rubbing sleep from my eyes, I'd misread my timetable. I shoved my feet into my Volleys and raced out of the house, still wearing the trackies and holey t-shirt I'd worn to bed. I was sweaty and puffing when I slumped into an empty seat and looked up into her amused eyes.
"You made it," she said.
My brain took a moment to catch up with my bum, now firmly planted on the worn green vinyl. "Yeah."
She'd already turned her attention back to the novel in her lap.
I folded my arms across my chest and leaned my head back against the window. I didn't want to freak her out or anything, so I just snuck a few peeks at her as the train rattled along the line. She had on this funny little hat, fitted close to her head. It was red and looked like it was made of felt. Her lipstick was the same shade.
She got off at the next stop, without so much as glancing at me, but I was still thinking about her red lips and her cute hat when I got to the lab. It took me longer than it should have to realise no one else had turned up for class. I flipped open my folder to find my timetable, and by the time I realised I'd mixed up Tuesday and Wednesday, I was almost late for my Statistics class.
I'd caught the 8:13 the following week hoping to see her, expecting to be disappointed. But she was there, book in hand, wearing an enormous straw hat. Fat pink and purple roses—artificial, I assumed—circled the crown.
She paid me no attention as I dropped into an open seat.
It was that way all semester. She'd always be there, in the same seat, with her nose in a book. She'd always be wearing a hat or cap of some sort—but never the same one twice. And she'd never so much as glance in my direction.
I couldn't say the same. Obviously.
I did try not to be too obvious in my watching; I didn't want her to think I was sort of stalker-creep. But I'd stolen enough looks at her to guess that she was probably a good four or five years older than I am.
Every week, I'd gotten off the train and told myself that next week, I'd talk to her. I'd just do it, just say hello. But every subsequent week, I'd looked her way and become sort of paralysed. She had this air about her—she seemed so sophisticated, wearing those hats that no one else could possibly hope to pull off. It intimidated me. I'd start to tell myself there was no way she'd be interested in some punk nineteen-year-old, a first-year uni student who could barely manage to get to the station on time.
And now the semester is almost over, and by missing her train this morning, I'm pretty sure I'm out of chances. So the rain that's soaking through the toes of my shoes and dripping down the collar of my jumper just adds to the shitty mood I've been in all day.
I shuffle past an older guy standing in front of a rack of autobiographies written by sportsmen. I wonder if anyone reads those. Do people actually care about some washed-up cricketer's shady affairs?
I scan the Bestsellers shelf. I don't know what I'm looking for, but I know it's not here. Outside, lightning jags across the sky, and the lights inside flicker in response. The sticky noise of tyres over wet bitumen is audible over the soft jazz playing in the store.
A book titled Pure Health* captures my attention, and I pull it off the shelf. I open to a page at random and read the first paragraph. It's chock-full of typical anti-Big Pharma propaganda—all emotion and no actual science. The chapter I skim is packed with plenty of appeals for consumers to stick with what's "natural" and "wholesome," but fails to supply any legitimate evidence to back up their claims. I put the book back on the shelf, then, mentally high-fiving myself, rest a manual on tantric sex in front of it.
I'm in the Science Fiction section, considering buying Ray Bradbury's Farewell Summer, when a flash of brilliant blue catches my eye.
My pulse speeds as I recognise her. Hat Girl.
She's on her knees at the end of the aisle, a heavy-looking volume open on her lap. A cobalt-blue fedora is perched on her head, and a pendant of the same colour dangles almost to her belly. She looks, as ever, completely absorbed by what she's reading.
I take a step towards her, then pause. Maybe she wouldn't appreciate the interruption.
But it's the second last week of semester. Then I've got exams, and then there's a good chance my timetable will change so much in July that I'll no longer be able to justify taking the 8:13 on Tuesdays. I might never see her again.
Man up, champ. This could be your last chance. I hook my thumbs under the straps of my backpack, and I do it. I walk right up to her and say, "Hi."
She looks up, a flash of irritation dissolving into recognition. That's a good sign, right?
"Oh, hey. I almost didn't recognise you without the whole–" She makes a circling motion over her head "–bedhead, running for the train thing going on."
The fact that she's placed me so easily makes me feel insanely happy. "You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you I'm usually a pretty punctual person, would you?"
She smiles. "Definitely not." The book makes a slapping noise as she closes it. She gets to her feet, her eyes still on mine. Silence stretches between us.
I realise she's waiting for me to speak. "So can I, um…" What the hell am I doing? "Can I buy you a book?"
She tips her head at me, and her red-painted lips twist in a way that makes me think she's trying really hard not to laugh at me. "Buy me a book?"
I pull the cuffs of my jumper over my hands and rub my eyebrow with my sleeve-covered thumb. "Yeah." I take a deep breath and push on. "I mean, if we were in a bar, I'd ask if I could buy you a drink. But we're here," I wave an arm towards a towering shelf of books, "and I dunno, I thought maybe… I mean you'd get a lot more out of a book, right?"
"I see." And then she just… stares at me. She stares so long that I take a step back, and I'm about to apologise for bothering her and hightail it out of there when she cracks this huge grin. "Yes."
"Yes, you can buy me a book. I'd love that." She shoves the one she's holding back into a gap on the shelf.
"So… Not that one?"
She strokes the spine of the book, almost fondly. "This book… Well, that'd be like me accepting your offer of a drink, and then ordering a thirty-five year old Old Pulteney."
"If you ordered Old Pulteney, I should probably drop to my knees and ask you to marry me."
Her eyebrows rise. "You know whiskey?"
"Little bit." I shove my hands into the pockets of my jeans. "My dad's like the Grand Master of this amateur whiskey tasting club. So I know some stuff. Don't tell him, but I don't really like it. Not unless it's at the bottom of an Old Fashioned."
"An amateur whiskey-tasting club? Is that a necessary distinction? I mean, are there actually professional tasting clubs out there?"
I snicker. "You know, that would not surprise me at all."
"I'm not following on one thing," she says. I have to remind myself to concentrate on what she's saying, and not just stare at her vibrant red lips as they move around her words. "Not being a whiskey drinker yourself, your proposal of marriage at my ordering that one would be motivated by…"
"My crippling desire to please my father, obviously."
"Ah, of course. A wife who likes whiskey to make up for the heartbreak you're going to cause him when you come out as a whiskey-despiser."
I laugh, too loudly. A woman nearby shoots a frown my way, and I'm tempted to remind her that it's a shop, not a library. I turn my attention back to Hat Girl. "Yeah, that's it. I need a whiskey beard."
Hat Girl just about gives me a heart attack when she reaches out and touches my unshaven cheek with two fingertips. "A few more days," she says, "and I'd say you'll have one."
She smiles, apparently oblivious to the fact my heart's threatening to thump right out of my chest, and pulls another book from the shelf. She flips it open. "I went on this date once," she says, her eyes fixed on the pages she's turning, "and the guy I was with drank Old Pulteney all night. I had no idea he was swallowing eighty bucks at a time. So then, when it was time to settle the bill, me being all Equal Opportunity Bella, I said I'd pay half. And he took me literally. I'd been drinking seven dollar glasses of rosé, and he still got me to pay fifty-percent of the total."
"What a shithead."
She chuckles, and the sound does something weird to my belly. "I know, right? I almost argued with him over it, but then I decided it'd been such a boring date anyway, and I didn't want him to feel like I still owed him anything, if you know what I mean. So I gave him the amount he asked for, and told him I needed to use the bathroom."
"You did a runner, didn't you?"
"Walked straight out the front door and into a taxi." She winks at me. "I think he got the hint—I never heard from him again."
"You must've been devastated."
Something she said catches up with me. "So… Bella?"
She frowns, but the creases on her forehead smooth out quickly. "Good catch."
"Edward," I say, because I feel like I need to restore the balance.
She offers me her hand. It's soft and warm. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Edward."
Finally? She says it like she's relieved. My knees feel a little weak as I realise she hasn't been as oblivious to me as I'd thought. I adjust my backpack on my shoulders. Determined to keep the conversation going, I say, "So, about that book…"
Her smile turns cheeky, her dark eyes glinting beneath the brim of her hat. "Why don't you choose one for me?"
"Seriously?" I look around the shelves, feeling kind of panicked. How the hell am I going to know what she likes? What if I choose something that she absolutely hates?
Her giggle snaps me out of my racing thoughts. "I'm joking," she says. "That would be cruel. I won't expect you know my literary tastes until our third date."
The easy way she mentions us dating makes me feel ten feet tall.
"I don't know if I should actually let you buy me a book." She wanders around the end of the aisle, and I can't see her face when she says, "I think I'd feel very odd about that."
I follow her over to the Australian Fiction shelves. "You should definitely let me." Even if I completely tank here, and I never see her again, I like the idea of her taking home something that will remind her of me. I gather up all the casual cool I can muster. "If nothing else, you'll have a good story to tell when someone asks if they can borrow your copy of–" I pull a book from the shelf at random "–Lost and Found."
Bella takes the book from me and puts it back on the shelf. "I have that one," she says. "My friend gave it to me for my birthday last year. And I still haven't read it."
She studies the shelves for so long that I'm starting to worry she's going to do something mean, like hand me a piece of hardcore erotica and send me to the cashier blushing and stammering—or worse, change her mind and tell me to take a hike.
But then she hands me a slim volume and looks at me seriously. "One of my favourites." There's something vulnerable about her as she says this, a little chink in the sophisticated persona she presents. Like she's letting me in on a secret that she's not sure she can trust me with.
I look at the book in my hands and smile. I remember reading this in late primary school: Robin Klein's Hating Alison Ashley.
Bella looks at me closely, and I think she's trying to decide if I'm teasing her. She must see what she's looking for, because she smiles and says, "Thanks."
Once it's paid for, I hand Bella the book, nestled inside a brown paper bag that's stamped with the store's logo. We step outside, keeping close to the store's front window to keep from getting rained on, and Bella asks me if I have a pen. I locate one in the depths of my backpack, and she hands me the book.
"You want me to autograph it?" I joke.
"Sure." She lifts one shoulder in a shrug, and I notice the stones in her earrings match her necklace and her hat. "But I'd much rather have your phone number."
Grinning, I write my name and number on the inside of the front cover. I touch the ink to make sure it won't smudge, before I hand the book back to Bella and toss the pen into my bag.
"Call me?" There's probably a bit too much desperation in my tone.
Bella fiddles with the blue pendant at the end of her necklace. "You could just ask me out now."
I don't need to be told twice. "Go out with me?"
She smiles. "Seven o'clock. At The Taphouse."
"Tonight." She offers me her hand, and feeling high on how well things are going, I bring it to my lips. I could swear she blushes.
"Thank you for the book, Edward."
I drop her hand, and we look at each other for a few more seconds before she turns on her heel and walks away. She flicks her hand up in a casual wave, and I only just hear her say, "See you in a few hours."
I watch her vivid blue hat weave through the people streaming along the footpath, until a bunch of high schoolers spill out of a café, blocking her from view.
I'm soaking wet—again—by the time I get home. I only have two hours before I need to leave to meet Bella, so I head straight for the shower. I shave and shampoo my hair, then just stand under the hot water, letting it chase away the cold from my fingers and toes. I punch my thigh, hard, needing to check that I haven't dreamed up my date with Bella. The pain is real, and I cringe as I rub my hand over the place I've just thumped.
Steam comes tumbling out of the stall as I open the shower door. I wrap a towel around my waist and then wipe the condensation from the mirror. I twist my head from side to side, checking to make sure I haven't missed a spot or cut myself while shaving. Turning up with tissue stuck to a still-bleeding wound on my chin would not be a good look.
I grip the edge of the counter and take a deep breath. I haven't been this nervous before a date since I was in Year 8 and Tanya Denali agreed to go to the movies with me.
Bella's just so… put-together. And it's not just the quirky hats and the bright lipstick. There's something about the way she carries herself. She seems so confident, self-assured. What the hell is she doing, agreeing to go out with a wanker like me?
She told you to ask her out, remember? I square my shoulders and puff out a breath. She's keen for this, too.
I'm ironing a shirt when my mum finds me. Her eyebrows climb her forehead as she watches me smooth the creases out of my collar.
I save her the trouble. "Yeah, I'm ironing. Yeah, I have a date. No, I don't know what time I'll be home. Probably not heaps late though."
Mum's mouth opens and closes a few times before she manages to say, "Do you need the car?"
I think about that. "I'll probably have a few drinks. Better take the bus."
"All right." Mum lifts her hands, like she's going to offer to take over pressing my shirt, but then she seems to think the better of it. "Be careful, okay?"
"Sure, Ma." I lift the iron off my shirt and lean over the board, offering her my cheek. She gives me a kiss and a gentle pat on the shoulder.
She clatters down the wooden staircase, and I have to laugh as I hear her tell my dad that I have a date, and that it must be getting serious, because I'm up there, ironing. "Ironing, Carlisle!"
I shake my head. If only she knew.
I get to The Taphouse five minutes before seven o'clock.
"Maybe you weren't lying about being punctual." Bella is waiting for me just outside the doors. She's wearing the snugly-fitted red hat she had on the first time I saw her.
She tugs my collar, and I stoop down so she can press a kiss to my cheek. "Oh." She giggles and starts wiping my cheek. "Sorry, I lipsticked you."
Having her kiss tattooed to my cheek doesn't seem like a terrible thing. I return the cheek- peck and tell her, "You were wearing that hat the first time I saw you."
She beams. "I know. It's actually my favourite."
"It suits you."
Bella's not weird about being complimented. She doesn't try to shake it off or argue with me; she just smiles and thanks me quietly. I like it, her easy grace, but it also sends a pang of nerves through me. It's another reminder of how much more mature than me she seems.
I follow her inside, and we decide to find a table upstairs, rather than compete with the noisy crowds gathered at the bar.
A waiter takes our drink orders and leaves us to peruse the menu. I watch Bella scan the list, toying with her earring as she reads.
"Are you– do you have any food allergies or aversions I should know about?"
She looks up, surprised. "That's... You know, I would never have thought to ask... But, no. I eat everything and anything." She raises a hand like she expects me to challenge her statement. "Anything within reason. I don't particularly fancy the idea of eating offal, for instance."
"Yeah, I'm with you there."
"Any allergies on your part? Anything I should avoid eating if I planned on being all up in your personal space?"
"No allergies. I'm, uh, I'm a vegetarian though."
Bella nods. "Sure. And are you okay with other people eating meat, or would you rather I didn't?"
I'm taken aback by her consideration. No one has ever asked me that. "Not at all. You should eat whatever you want to.""
A look of mischief steals over her. "So it wouldn't bother you—hypothetically, of course—kissing someone who'd been eating meat?"
"Um." I almost knock over my water as I reach for my glass. "As long as that person didn't still have like, a chunk of steak still in their mouth then, hypothetically, I'd be fine with kissing them."
The ice well and truly broken, our conversation flows easily around the arrival of our drinks and later, our dinner. Bella asks me what I'm studying, and when I tell her I'm doing a Biotechnology degree, she says, "That's like making GM foods and stuff, right?"
"Partly. I mean, yes. That's biotech. But there's a lot more to it than just GMOs." She listens intently as I explain my interest in gene therapy. "It means we'll be able to treat a lot of diseases at their source. Rather than just manage the symptoms, we'll be able to replace a faulty gene, or even introduce a new one that can cure a particular disease."
"Right? It's still quite new technology, but the potential… It's pretty amazing."
Bella's pretty amazing herself. She's working towards a Ph.D in English Literature—"The tentative title for my thesis is, 'Writers Writing Stories about Writers Writing Stories,' but that may change"—as well as teaching a class for the first time. "Constructing the Fictive Self," she explains. "Thankfully, it's a pretty small class, even though it's a first year course."
"Are you parents academics, too?"
She shakes her head. "My mum's a cop. A pretty high-ranking one, actually. And Dad's… Well, he was a stay-at-home dad whilst I was growing up, and now he's… I suppose you could call him a dilettante."
"I'm not sure I know what that means."
"He's like this mad hobbyist. He'll pick up some new thing, like, I don't know, watercolour painting. And he'll watch hours and hours of YouTube videos, and buy a whole bunch of supplies, and for a few weeks, that's all he does. He's a painter. Until he realises he's not actually a very good painter, and he moves on to the next thing. Which could be anything from teaching himself to play the bagpipes to growing all his own food."
Bella sighs. "My parents had me quite young. And unplanned. At first, Dad was staying home with me, so Mum wouldn't fall too far behind the rest of her cohort at the academy. But I'm not sure he ever really knew what he wanted to do with himself, and then all of a sudden he was in his thirties, and I think he just gave up trying to figure it all out." She shrugs. I can hear the sadness tinging her words as she tells me, "I love my dad, but we're very different people. Sometimes, I just don't understand him at all."
I'm not sure what to say, so I settle for reaching across the table and squeezing her hand. As my fingers close around hers, I worry that she'll think me patronising, but the gentle smile she offers me dispels my worries almost as quickly as they form.
"Can I ask you about the hats?"
Bella's smile slips a little. She takes a sip of her wine and sets her glass back down carefully. "When I was six, I was diagnosed with leukaemia."
My stomach sinks like a stone. She looks so healthy.
"Chemo, you know? I lost all my hair. Felt really self-conscious about it. No one ever teased me or anything. I just – I hated the look of my head. All bald and white and alien-looking. So I'd wear my school hat all day. I wouldn't take it off in class, or even at home. Not until I had to take a bath."
She taps her fingernail on the base of her wineglass. "My grandmother knitted me a beanie that winter. She was worried about my head being too cold with no hair to keep it warm. And then a friend of my mum's gave me a little fedora for my birthday. That was the start of my collection."
"How, um – How many hats do you own?"
"Oh, God." She laughs. "I've no idea. Hundreds, I suppose. I got so used to wearing one that I just feel sort of… naked when I don't wear one. No. It's more than that. It feels—this is going to sound ridiculous—but it feels like my mind is too – like it could just… whoosh away if I wasn't paying attention."
"That doesn't sound ridiculous." I hesitate, take a sip of my beer, and then push on. "And the leukemia?"
"Gone." She looks me in the eye. I read the challenge in her fierce gaze: Don't pity me. "I've as much chance as you do of getting sick now."
I raise my glass to her. "To good odds."
She clinks her glass against mine and her smile is broad. "To good odds."
I drain my beer, and then I can't hold my question back any longer. "How old are you?"
Bella blinks. "Twenty-four."
"Okay." She frowns at me as she sets her glass down. "Is something bugging you?"
"No, no. I just. I don't… I mean, I feel like you're so…" I wave a hand towards her. "You're so classy and you seem to have it all sorted. And I'm just this dumb kid who's got no idea about anything."
She picks up her napkin, and I'm half-expecting her to stand up and leave, but instead she folds it and brings it to her mouth. She wipes off her lipstick and then with a wry smile, lifts her hat off. Her dark brown hair is shiny, but a mess from being stuffed under the little hat. I watch, puzzled, as she gathers her hair up into a ponytail. She ties her hair in a knot on top of her head and then drops her hands into her lap.
Without the bright lips and the hat, she looks surprisingly young and vulnerable, and I think that maybe I already understand what she's about to explain.
"It's just a costume, Edward." She straightens her knife and fork on her empty plate. "Decoration. Sometimes, if I feel like I look put-together, then I can convince myself that I have it all together. But really, I'm still only twenty-four."
She takes a sip of her wine before she continues. "Maybe I'm more like my dad than I realised. My grandmother likes to remind me that a hundred years ago, it'd have been normal for a woman my age to be married with like, four kids by now. But we don't live a hundred years ago, and really, I'm just like any other woman in her early-twenties, trying to figure out how to do this life thing."
"I understand," I say. And I do. I know exactly how she feels. "And for what it's worth, Bella, I reckon you're aceing this life thing."
An hour later, we're standing outside the pub, shivering a little in the autumn wind. Leaves skitter around our ankles, and a few stars that are bright enough to compete with the light pollution twinkle overhead. That just-rained smell lingers, beneath the exhaust fumes and the scent of decomposing leaves.
Bella looks up as she wraps her scarf around her neck. "Tomorrow is supposed to be fine."
"Yeah." I crunch a leaf under my foot. I don't want to say goodbye, or even goodnight, just yet.
"Come back to my place." Her voice doesn't lift at the end—it's not a question.
As if I'm going to say no. I say that: "As if I'm going to say no."
Bella chuckles as she takes my hand, tangling her fingers into the spaces between mine. It's like our hands are jigsaw pieces slotting into place.
She tugs me to the left. "This way."
The walk back to Bella's flat is short and punctuated by the click-clack of her boots on the pavement. She points out a little hole in the wall café that she claims makes the best lattés in the history of people adding milk to coffee.
"Really?" I squint at the graffiti-covered roller door pulled over the storefront. "It looks like a bike shop."
She giggles. "Oh, it is. But they make coffee, too."
"Of course they do." I can just imagine the guys who run the place—all ironic beards and tattoos of coffee paraphernalia and thick-framed glasses and man-buns.
Bella cracks up when I say this.
"It's actually these two women…"
"You know that saying about judging books by their covers, Edward." She bumps me with her shoulder. "You can't judge a hipster by their bike store."
We're both still laughing when Bella squeezes my hand and pulls me towards a short flight of stairs. "I'm up here."
I follow her through a glass-panelled door and into a concrete stairwell. Our footsteps echo and clatter as we climb one, two, three flights of stairs.
"You must have killer legs–" I realise too late how that could sound, but Bella just laughs.
"I only moved in in March," she says. "My legs still hate me for picking a building with no lift." She pulls her keys from her bag and walks towards a door decorated with a tarnished silver 9. "But who can afford to live somewhere with a lift?"
I shrug and look at my shoes. I've heard it sucks, but I have no real clue about the rental market, still living at home with my parents and all.
"Come on in." Bella swings open the door, and I force my gaze back to her face. She's smiling, but there's nervousness there, too. Seeing that little bit of apprehension there, weirdly, chases away my own anxiety.
In the light of the tall lamp she's turned on, I can see that Bella's flat is pretty basic. The kitchen flows into a dining room that's also a living room. There are three closed doors, probably her bedroom, bathroom, and laundry. But even in the small, neutral-coloured space, her personality is everywhere. The blood red cushions on the battered-looking sofa. The black and white prints of stretching ballet dancers on the wall beside the tiny dining table. The huge wall-covering bookshelves opposite the couch—where most people would mount a television.
She closes the door, and dumps her handbag on the small table by the door, which seems to exist for just that purpose, and bends down to unzip her boots. I follow her example and step out of my shoes.
"Oh, you don't have to," Bella says. "I don't care about the carpet."
"It's fine," I say.
"Okay." She straightens up, and leaving her boots and socks where they are, she steps over to the couch and flips on another lamp. She hauls open the refrigerator. "Beer? Wine? I have apple juice…"
"Beer's great. Thank you."
Bella busies herself with opening a beer and pouring herself a glass of rosé, and I look around, unsure as to what to do with myself. I spot the book I bought her this afternoon on the coffee table. It's facedown and open, its covers spread like butterfly wings—did she start reading it this afternoon?
"What has you smiling?"
I take the beer Bella is holding out to me. She follows my gaze and nods. "Ah. Yeah, I couldn't help myself."
"As good as you remember it?"
She sinks down onto the couch and pats the seat beside her. "Better."
"Mm-hmm." Bella brings her glass to her lips, then pauses. "It's a scientific fact, books are twenty-seven percent more enjoyable when a cute boy writes his number in the front."
"Is that right?" I take a pull of my beer.
"I'll have to remember that, next time I buy a book," I joke. "See if there are any cute blokes around to enhance the experience for me."
Bella snorts, and then slaps a hand to her face. Her cheeks are pink beneath her hand.
"You okay there?"
She swallows and takes a deep breath. "Just shooting wine out my nostrils," she says. She wipes beneath her nose with a knuckle. "What was that you were saying about me being classy?"
"You're super classy."
She shakes her head at me. "I'm glad you think so. But I'm also a complete dork at times."
"That's cool. I like dorks."
She puts down her wine glass and reaches for my beer. I've drunk less than half, but there's something about the way the light shines in her eyes that makes me relinquish it immediately.
She moves closer. She's really close. Her mouth is just there, and it's like she's reading my mind when she says, "Can I kiss you now?"
"Yeah," I say, my eyes still on her mouth. "You should definitely do that."
The thump of blood in my ears is loud as she tilts her head—she's still wearing her cute little hat—and presses her lips to mine. My eyes fall closed as she kisses me, and I kiss her back, and she sighs this breathy little sigh, and then her tongue is sliding against mine, and my hands are gripping her waist, and somehow she's in my lap and, oh, God, I never want to stop kissing her, ever.
Bella pulls away, resting her forehead against mine. Her breathing is as laboured as my own.
I run my fingers through the ends of her hair, and she sits up a little to look at me. I lift my eyebrows as I reach for her hat, asking for her permission. She just smiles, as I lift it from her head.
"Does it have a name?"
I snicker. "You're funny."
"It's called a cloche, if that's what you meant."
"Cloche." Closh. The word feels funny on my tongue. And I can think of better uses for my tongue, anyway, so I crook a finger under Bella's chin, and bring her mouth back to mine.
At some point between kisses, my shirt ends up on the floor. Bella's follows it quickly. I'm tracing my tongue over the swell of her breasts when she tugs my hair and says my name.
"Mmm." I'm not inclined to remove my mouth from her soft skin, but when she says, "Wait," I pull away.
She stands up, but before I can worry that I'm moving too fast or making her uncomfortable she starts unbuttoning her jeans. I stare, my mouth dropping open, as she wriggles out of the tight denim. She stands between my legs, a tiny smile playing on her lips as she looks down at me.
Faint silvery lines stretch up Bella's thighs and around her hips. I trace them with my fingertips, and she tries to squirm away.
"Stretchmarks," she says. "Puberty sucks."
"I have them, too." I twist in the chair so she can see where the faint lines mar my upper back and shoulders.
She frowns. "I didn't know guys…" She shakes her head. "I mean, it makes sense. You guys have growth spurts, too."
I think I say, "Yeah," but get kind of distracted when I look back at Bella and realise that she's standing there in just her underwear. I cup my hands around her knees and tug gently, asking her to come back down so I can keep kissing her.
She drops to her knees, and I lean forward, capturing her lips again. I groan into her mouth as her hands slide from my knees, up my thighs. When she pulls away, I bury my face against her neck, kissing down her throat and across her shoulders. I get a mouthful of her hair, and I laugh as I try to wipe it away from my face.
But then I feel Bella's lips on my chest, and I'm not laughing anymore. She kisses down my stomach, and my muscles clench in response. Fuck. She feels so good, her soft lips and hands searing against my bare skin. Her fingers are busy with the buttons of my jeans when I say, "Wait. Bella."
She pauses, pulling back. Concern wrinkles her brow. "You don't want me to…"
I do. So much. But… "Can you– Would it be rude…" It's hard to catch my breath and even harder to say what I'm thinking. "Do you think… Lipstick?"
"Lipstick." Bella rocks back on her heels, and her expression is impossible to read in the low light. Her voice takes on a breathy quality. "Have you thought about that, Edward?"
"Yes." I groan. "Does that make me a shithead? It does, doesn't it? I've totally been objectifying you. I'm sorry." I drop my head into my hands, still trying to slow my breathing and get my body under control.
Bella tugs my hands away from my face. She's smiling, and I take that as an encouraging sign. "I mean, I could be offended. But context is everything. And I've just spent the last–" she glances over her shoulder at the microwave clock "–six hours with you so I know you're not just interested in my mouth."
"I'm interested in all of you."
"I know that." She gets to her feet and points at one of the closed doors. "That's my bedroom. You should wait for me in there."
I struggle to my feet, holding my unbuttoned jeans by the waistband so they don't slip down as I walk across the room. I take a breath and push open the door to Bella's bedroom.
Like the rest of the flat, it's small, neat, and very Bella. Lamplight casts a soft glow across a deep red bedspread. A huge stack of books is balanced on the table beside her bed; even more are piled on her desk. There's a hat stand in the corner, and I grin as I recognise the cobalt blue one she had on earlier today, the big straw one with flowers, and a bunch of other ones she's worn throughout the semester.
I sit on the end of her bed, my knee jiggling. She doesn't keep me waiting long.
The sight of her standing there in black lace and red lipstick is something I won't forget easily.
"Where were we?" she says, dropping to her knees.
I lift my hips and let her pull my jeans and boxers off, but the urgency of a few moments ago has faded, and she's too far away, and I'm not sure I want that, at least not right at this moment.
I touch her shoulder. "Come up here."
She comes with a smile. She kisses me softly and then pulls away, laughter dancing in her eyes. "Oh, dear." She touches my lip with her thumb.
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. It comes away stained with red. I shrug and pull Bella back into my lap. I kiss her until my lungs demand air, and then I kiss her some more, trailing my lips down her throat and enjoying the way she whimpers when I nip at the place where her neck meets her shoulder.
She pushes at my shoulders and I scoot us both back on the bed. I tug at the clasp of her bra. "Can I?"
I fumble for a moment and then it comes away, and her breasts are in my hands with her nipples pressed against my palms, and she's squirming around on top of me, and I need her to stop or this isn't going to last very long. I roll us over and and lift up onto my elbow. I hook a finger beneath the waistband of her unders, and she lifts her hips and lets me pull them down. She kicks them off, and then we're both naked, and I'm a little bit overwhelmed because just this morning she was Hat Girl, and I've only known her for a matter of hours but I'm pretty sure I'm well on my way to falling hard and fast, and I need her to know this isn't only about sex—even though I'd really like to have sex with her, as soon as possible.
I don't really know how to tell her all that without sounding like a complete idiot, so I try to show her with the kisses I press across every square inch of her body. And there's something in her deep, dark eyes as she looks up at me while my fingers slip between her legs that makes me think maybe I'm not the only one who's been caught off guard by how quickly someone can feel so important to you.
She tells me, "Yes," and "More," and "Just there," and catches my wrist to show me what she likes, what she needs, and when she falls over that edge it's a beautiful sight.
She giggles as she lies there, her chest rising and falling with her gradually slowing breaths.
I kiss her nose and ask her what's so funny.
She touches my throat, then my chest, then lifts her head to look down at her own torso. "I think I need a refund on my lippy. The ad said it was kiss-proof."
I follow her gaze, and I can just make out the smudges of red on my chest. There are more across Bella's breasts and on her belly, which means my chin and mouth must look ridiculous. But it's hard to worry about looking ridiculous when Bella's hand reaches my stomach and then keeps moving lower. In fact, it's hard to think about anything at all apart from how good she's making me feel.
I grab her wrist with a groan. "Bella. I…"
She pulls her hand away and reaches across the bed to pull a condom from her bedside table. "I bought these this afternoon," she says, as casually as if she were commenting on the weather.
I mean to make a witty reply, but before I can come up with something, she's straddling my thighs. We make love for the first time like that, with me flat on my back staring up at her in wonder as I gasp for breath.
The second time is in the depths of night, with the lights off, and the sheets whispering against our skin.
We're still awake when the soft blue light of another autumn morning starts to creep under the blinds. I stumble out of bed to use the bathroom and shoot my mum a text: "I'm not dead. Sorry I didn't call."
When Bella calls my name, her voice sleepy, I hurry back into the bedroom. She lifts up the covers, and I'm only too happy to crawl back under there with her. Bella's hair is a mess of tangles and knots, and there are lipstick stains on the pillowcases, and my breath is starting to taste a little sour, but I don't need to poke the bruise on my thigh to know that, if any moment in my life has been real, it's this one right now.
*Not a real book. The rest are.