Arizona is the land of free refills and boys that fuck like stallions.
I don't precisely know if that statement is true. I suspect it's not.
The thing is, I once promised a boy that if I ever wrote something along the lines of a book, I'd start with that line. I'm a woman of my word; I keep my promises – to myself and to others. I can't say it's always served me well, but it feels right. I also pride myself on nearly always doing what feels right - you know, listening to that feeling deep in your bones that warns you about trouble or that hints that you're onto something really sweet. Anyway, the idea of keeping promises and following my bone-sense is what's at the heart of this story, way more than free refills and Arizona stallions.
"Man, I haven't had a free refill since Flagstaff," I sighed, skimming over our check and noticing we'd each been charged for two cups of coffee.
"Another reason to call it quits and come back home with me, Bell."
Jake had been insistent like that for about a thousand miles.
"What? Like Arizona is this magical land of free refills?" I asked with a smirk. I knew lots of Arizona facts; that wasn't one of them.
Jake straightened his shirt collar and flashed a toothy grin. "Free refills and boys that fuck like stallions."
I burst out laughing, inadvertently spraying my best friend with at least seventy-five cents worth of coffee.
"What?" he asked, wiping at the coffee on his forehead. "It could be true. It's not like you know, right?"
I tried to stop grinning.
"You and I both grew up around horses, Jake." I had to work to hold the giggles inside. "I'm pretty sure you mean boys that are hung like stallions, because, um… the alternative? Ouch." I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat letting the giggles take over.
Jake's face had gone from pink to red as I spoke and he found something really interesting to focus on outside the diner's grimy window.
"Arizona: The land of free refills and boys that fuck like stallions," I announced in my best newscaster voice, swinging my coffee mug jauntily in front of me, then taking a long, last swig.
"Sounds about right to me," he said with a sullen, shy shrug.
"Maybe," I offered kindly, letting it drop. Jake had a hard time admitting when he was wrong.
"You make sure they know that up in Princeton," he persisted. "So those Ivy Leaguers know their place."
"Ha! Should I wear it across my chest?" I laughed.
Jake raised his eyebrows.
"Like on a shirt, silly. I wasn't going to paint it across my bare boobs."
Jake didn't look convinced. I kicked him under the table. He pulled his leg away, wincing, with his focus back out the window again.
"I was thinking more like a Facebook post or a blog or something," he huffed.
"Jake, I've got exactly thirty-six friends on Facebook and they're all from Arizona."
"Like, I don't know, if you wrote an essay or a story or something," Jake persisted, sounding suddenly needy. He turned and his eyes met mine. He was sad. He was losing me. How had we gone from joking to such loss so quickly?
"Use my line and remember me, okay?" he asked quietly.
"An essay about stallions fucking and Arizona boys?"
I joke when I'm nervous. Sometimes I don't like that personality trait. I'm working on it. Jake didn't like it at that moment in time, either. He clenched his jaw before answering, "It doesn't matter what it's about; just start it with that line. So I know you remember."
I laughed again, nervously that time around. Jake looked on expectantly. I consulted my bones. It felt silly, but it felt right.
"Deal," I acquiesced, figuring there was a fat chance I'd ever write anything.
"Yeah?" he asked. "The first line?"
"The first line. Promise."
So, here I am. I've got my first line promise out of the way. Like Jake mentioned, I don't know one way or the other how boys from Arizona do it in bed, but let's hope for the sake of Arizona women that it's a little more intimate and a little less jerky than the way horses go at it.
Arizona is hardly even a part of this story, though. I left Arizona the summer after my senior year of high school, three long months ago. I left my dad, Charlie. I left my dog, Alice. I left my best friend, Jake. (You just met him in that flashback). I left my home. I left Paradise Valley Community College before I even began. I left the towering ponderosa pines of the Tonto National Forest. I left those vast open spaces where you can twirl in a circle and search the horizon and not spot another soul.
I miss that.
My family's lived in Arizona since way before it became a state. (It became the forty-eighth state on February 14th, 1912). The Swans have inhabited a big, dusty tract of land in the desert pine forest for four generations. My mom moved in with my dad when she was eighteen, and she lived there up until the day she died of lymphoma: April 16th, 2002. My dad will never leave. Neither will mom's bones.
When my big brother Emmett up and out of the blue left for college in the fall of that year, it was like a shock to our idea of living. You could leave? You could just pack up a truck with your belongings and drive somewhere else? People came to Strawberry, Arizona to visit. People from Strawberry, Arizona didn't go anywhere… except Emmett Swan.
I held Emmett in contempt for a long time after that. Even as a kid, I recognized that bone-deep feeling. I knew my big brother was running away from dad's sadness, the sudden loss of my mom and the responsibility of looking after me. I did what any kid would; I reacted. I clung to Dad, to the desert, and to my roots with complete devotion and Southwestern pride. I was the child that would stay true. I'd be good. I'd commit.
I took over some of mom's traditions, like Christmas enchiladas and tres leches for birthdays. I read books about my little piece of the country. I learned to identify the native plants that surrounded the cemetery where mom was buried. I took to painting desert landscapes as a hobby. I dressed the part of an Arizona native: in plaids, denim, boots and some of Mom's turquoise jewelry. I became best friends with Jake.
I'll admit it; I totally introduced myself to Jake because he was Arizona Havapai, but I stayed his friend because he was awesome - until it got all weird… but I'm getting ahead of myself, or behind myself. I'm not really sure. I don't have experience telling stories as much as telling truths. It did get weird, though. That's for certain.
At first, though, it wasn't weird at all. Jake and I would just go off together and do kid kind of stuff. It made sense; we were kids. We'd ride bikes or catch lizards or go fishing in one of the lakes up on the ridge above town. And then there was one of my absolute favorite things about growing up in Strawberry: if Jake and I'd help out cleaning stalls at his place his dad would let us take a couple horses down to Tonto on our own.
It's unbelievable down there at the Tonto Natural Bridge. It's like another world: with pines and desert sands, and all these tall rock formations with water falling everywhere. We'd tie up the horses and play hide and seek for hours. When it was hotter than hot we'd run underneath the water like it was an Arizona version of a lawn sprinkler. We'd lie in the scratchy underbrush and watch faint wisps of clouds float across the never-ending blue sky. They say Montana's the Big Sky Country, but I'm not convinced. Arizona has the biggest, bluest skies ever.
I felt so small there. I felt so good there. Jake was a quiet kid - quiet enough so I could just kind of be there. You know? Wow. I miss Tonto.
That was the spot where things changed for me. I can't explain it, really. I just had this sudden urge, and when I thought about it, like really thought about it, I shook down deep in my bones - from the inside out. I ducked behind a stand of creosote in the dappled shade. That was it. Then I pushed my luck until I pushed myself right out of Strawberry. I hope I can find my way back. I hope I can find a way to be happy there. I hope I can feel as excited there one day as I do right now.
It took a while to get to this place, though. First there were mistakes – lots of mistakes. First there were wrong messages and rumors and fistfights. And by the end there, everything felt wrong.
I opened my eyes one morning, just a week or two before I was set to start junior college and I saw my life all laid out in front of me. I saw with sudden clarity that I'd been drawing up the blueprints for my future without even realizing it. I could see a little stone house on our family's property in the shadow of the ridge, some horses, some kids, and plans for me to take over the family business. I hadn't made room for an alternative. Like my mom and dad and my grandparents before them, I'd live and die in the desert. And it felt… wrong.
My bones rattled uncomfortably.
I'd made a life, and the normal thing to do would be to live it. But I'd gone and proved that maybe I wasn't normal. Maybe I didn't fit inside that framework I'd created. Maybe I needed something different - just for the time being. Maybe I needed a break. Maybe Strawberry needed a break from me.
Suddenly I was thinking the impossible. Suddenly, I wanted out – just for a little while, of course. With those crazy thoughts, suddenly I could breathe again. I could move. There were possibilities for my future that I'd never considered.
"Just for a year or two, Daddy. I promise I'll be back. I really do want to come back."
"Like your brother did?" my dad asked, his mouth drawn up in a tight, disapproving line so that it was almost hidden under his mustache.
"I don't know about Emmett, but I just need… I don't know... space, maybe."
"How much more space do you need, Honey?" My dad looked around at the wide-open desert to our west and the wild ridge just above us.
All I could see, though, was the small spot on the ground kind of cordoned off by my old red, rusting Dodge and the back of the garage where I'd just found my dad chopping an old ash for kindling. That spot… I was so stupid.
Jake had ended up punching Paul right in the face on that spot, and suddenly there'd been blood everywhere – even across my belly. And then Sam had gone and played tug of war with my shirt.
I sank onto the stack of concrete blocks next to my dad and me. The bricks were speckled brown, probably with some of Sam's blood.
Sometimes you can't take breathing for granted. Sometimes it seems so hard to get your lungs to work.
"Baby?" my dad asked, stooping down, concerned.
"I just need a little time away, Daddy. It's what kids do when they're eighteen. Right?"
I'd sat right on that spot when Jake had taken off his T-shirt – so I could wipe the blood, so I could cover. The look in his eyes that afternoon had been frightening.
"Sometimes you take things too fucking far," he'd growled before he'd stomped away. His broad bronze back seemed to glow in the orange rays of the setting sun. He'd been right.
"What about school?" my dad asked, bringing my mind back to the present.
"I think college can wait until I want it more. I'll get a job instead."
"What kind of job?" my dad demanded, his voice suddenly sharp and strong.
My head snapped to attention. Dad's gray eyes were bright with concern and his jaw was hard set. He knew.
The space between my father and me was suddenly charged in a very uncomfortable way. We'd never speak a word of it – but I knew - that he knew.
I needed to get out of Strawberry more than ever.
"Emmett said he'd help me find work. He said he has some connections," I explained very quietly.
"Emmett's a football coach, Bella. How's that supposed to help?"
"I don't know, Daddy, but if I never try -"
"Like if you never try college, or if you never try sticking it out here, or if you never-"
"I'm coming back! This is my home. I just need a time out, or a reset button, or a… or a - I don't know."
I felt the sting of unshed tears pushing at the back of my eyes. I knew it looked like I was running away like Emmett had. Part of me wasn't entirely convinced that I wasn't acting just like my brother. It's not like I hadn't been up every night for a week trying to figure it all out. The idea of leaving seemed so right, but if that same deep down feeling in my bones led me to do something as stupid as… what I'd done, well, who was to say I was making the right decision by leaving?
Can you ignore it when your bones sing? Probably. Me, though - not so much.
Every time I thought about leaving I buzzed all over, but whenever I thought about staying I felt like there was no oxygen to be found for miles.
My dad rested on his haunches next to me. His brown boots were old and worn at the toes.
"It just makes me sad, Honey. I'm sad to see my baby go, and without a real plan, and half a world away. I'm sad your brother might keep you up there. New Jersey? Really?"
I shrugged. It's not like I had anywhere else pressing to get to.
"You know I love you, Daddy, right?"
My dad's smile was big and warm like it always was when I talked about loving him.
"Don't give up on school, okay?" he asked.
I nodded. The tears had pushed their way past my eyeballs and were trickling from the corners of my eyes.
"And don't give up on your home. You always have a place here. It's our place in the world. New fucking Jersey is no substitute, excuse my French."
"Not even close," I agreed. "Not even close."
It wasn't even close to Strawberry, Arizona, and I was glad of it.
That's the long and the short of it. Okay, that's really just the short of it. There are details I'm not comfortable writing down, just yet. I'll fill you in; I promise. There's also stuff in the middle about how I actually ended up in a dressing room in Princeton, New Jersey, buzzing with excitement.
There's a reason, I'm sure of it. That's why I'm writing. In all of this I'm sure that there's a kind of map. There's a way to go from feeling like a freak to finding a way to be myself.
Bella Swan – artist.
Bella Swan – model.
Bella Swan – just needs a few extra dollars.
Bella Swan – fulfilled.
Last Wednesday was my first time. It was kind of the best day of my life. And it turns out that I was good!
"We'd really like to have you back, Ms. Swan."
That's what the lady from the fine arts department said over the phone.
"There's an anatomical drawing class next week on Thursday and we need -"
"I'll do it!"
I'd had to call in sick to work. Rosalie wasn't pleased and Emmett did not enjoy covering for me. To make matters worse, there was no way in the world I was going to tell him what I was doing this afternoon instead of my job. Leave it to Emmett; he figured I was doing a boy.
It's hard to figure out why that was better than the truth, but in my world, it was.
I have a feeling that this afternoon might be better than anything I could do with a boy, although I mentioned above how I can't really comment one way or another about… that. I really can't imagine that it compares to… this, though.
Today I'm even more excited than the first time, something I never would have thought possible. Today I'm not as nervous but my palms are still sweaty. Today I pause from writing in my journal to enjoy the soft terrycloth rubbing against my nipples as I take a deep, cleansing breath. Today I set the little notebook down by my side, and I pull the tie on my robe tighter. It hugs at the waist. I take another deep, steadying breath. I take note of the confident voice of the professor. Today there's a lecture first.
"Remember that today we're focusing on the rectus abdominus. Carefully consider the manner in which it is shaped and stretched by the movement of the ribcage and diaphragm," the professor lectures.
My hands follow her words: ribcage, diaphragm. I don't know the rectus abdominus, but I'm thinking it has to do with the abdomen. I've read that you're not supposed to suck in your stomach for this kind of thing, but I'm tempted anyway since it's obvious that today all eyes will be on my midsection. I press my thighs together. My bones ache. I feel giddy. This is what I guess it feels like to be high.
"… with consideration of the pulse points at the inguinal folds."
"But how do we capture motion on the paper?" a chipper female voice asks.
"Excellent question… to be answered only with practice." The professor sounds pleased with her ambiguous answer.
"You've only spoken of the movement of the anterior portion of the body." A deep voice, soft and insistent, winds its way through the air and invades the small space I'm standing in.
"As a study of the rectus -" The professor begins, but she's interrupted.
"The ribs and diaphragm are just a small piece of an intricate framework – a delicate yet durable balance. The pelvis forms the other anchor for the rectus. There's a push and pull that never ends – a fluidity that reaches all the way to the pelvic floor, and up the back to the gluteals, and then along the erector spinae beyond."
My mouth is hanging wide. My fingers are stilled over my chest. My breath comes in shallow bursts. I have no idea what the deep male voice is talking about, but it's no wonder, because it's turned my whole body, my brain included, to mush. Electrified mush. Lightening-struck mush. Quaking mush.
I glance down and find my hands pressed flat against the dressing room door like they're moving towards the voice. I see the rapid rise and fall of my chest. My chest!
"… just a short break and then we'll get started," the professor finishes, sounding more than a little flustered.
Chairs scrape against linoleum. Footsteps clomp away. My heart tries to leap out of my chest. My chest. My nearly naked chest.
I sit dumbly on the little stool. I eye my neatly folded clothing. I touch a toe to the hard wood underneath my feet and it's cold. I'd meant to bring flip-flops. Somehow, I've lost my baring. I look to my journal for support. I consider re-reading the pages as a reminder about how confident I'm supposed to be in this moment.
The knock on the door of the dressing room startles me.
"Bella?" the professor asks. Her voice sounds uncertain.
I stand to my feet, at a loss. I feel wired like you feel after too much coffee and not enough food, or too much fun and not enough sleep – or both, at once. I try to pull myself together, unwilling to let a voice, of all things, throw me off my game – not after I've just figured everything out.
I unlock the door and push it open
The professor's gray-blue eyes radiate relief.
"I was writing," I say by way of excuse.
She smiles kindly. A wisp of dark blonde hair falls out of her messy bun. We walk through a sort of oversized supply closet lined with gray metal shelving and lockers and make our way to a studio. Winter light filters through high windows. Artificial lights shine on the raised dais in the center.
"This is a little different than most sessions," she informs me. "We're studying the -"
"Abdomen," I say in an effort to show that I'm not dense.
She seems pleased. My confidence begins to return. If she likes me she'll ask me back.
"Yes, exactly – the abdomen. So we're looking for frontal and side views; poses that emphasize the contracture and release of your core… poses that highlight how this musculature lies in the body."
I hear an echo of what that voice had been trying to explain to the class in the professor's words. She runs a hand up and down along her torso like she's demonstrating for me, but the movement is verging on languid. Her nails are bitten and polished deep, blood red. Her eyes are distant. I think I know what's on both of our minds. I test my theory.
"What about the… erector, um, spiny?" I ask, uncertain if I've pronounced it right.
Her fingers still between her breasts. "Oh? Edward?" Her cheeks go pink. "Ignore his opinions. It's what I do."
She's lying. She doesn't ignore the owner of that voice. And the owner's name is Edward.
"He's not even in the art program," she continues. "He's auditing… comes and goes as he pleases. When he's here he's hardly worth listening to."
"Speak for yourself, Professor Denali," a pretty blonde giggles as she bounces into the room pulling along a b-… no, pulling along a man. He's a young man with yellow-green eyes that beam like he's got rays of Arizona sunshine coming straight through them, and a strong, unshaven jaw, and messy rust-brown hair. "I don't mind when Edward comes to class," she continues, smiling into the man's face.
The man's attention is elsewhere, though. He is concentrating on where the two of them are connected. I follow his gaze to their joined hands, feeling a strange sense of disappointment that I push aside. The man has large hands that totally swallow up the girl's. They're neat and strong hands, clean and sure. He has nice hands. I like his hands. I don't remember liking anyone's hands before.
After a moment those hands struggle to break free of the girl's grasp and it's like a spell is broken. Everyone in the room shifts uneasily like we've all just realized that everyone in the studio had been staring at hands. Weird.
"Excuse me, Edward," the professor says with a pinking face, and my suspicions about her are confirmed. I hold my breath, hoping to hear Edward accept her apology.
Instead, he retreats behind an easel and takes a seat, very distracted by pencils and his hands. Maybe he likes his hands as much as I do.
The professor turns her attention abruptly back to me. More hair has fallen from her bun.
"So, how about if we start with ten warm up gestures before moving on to short poses, okay?" the professor asks me briskly, a little too brightly.
The man's eyes fall on me. Edward. Inexplicably, I want to run away almost as much as I've wanted to drop my robe. If I'm not careful I could wind up running naked through the streets of Princeton, New Jersey.
"Bella?" the professor prompts.
More students are filtering into the studio and taking their seats. I notice the blonde situating herself next to Edward. I'm not convinced he's noticed her. His eyes sweep over my body. I shudder.
The professor clears her throat and I force myself to focus.
"Of course," I say with a smile, stepping onto the dais with purpose.
I pull my iPhone out of my robe's pocket and set it on the floor. Chatter settles to a quiet hum. For some reason, I've fooled myself into thinking that I can feel the heat of Edward's gaze burning holes through my robe. Another shudder works its way through me, from the inside out.
I hear his voice. I see his eyes. My bones sing. My middle aches. I'm vibrating like a tuning fork. It makes no sense. I search him out. He's watching. I drop my robe.
A/N: I owe my fanfic publishing sanity to SereneInNC and KikiTheDreamer. Thanks for your help, guys!
My goal is for BNBD to be less than half as angsty as TiaL. We'll see if my own angst ridden bones can comply. No promises about posting schedules. We'll just see how it goes for the first couple chapters, okay?
I have no blog. I have a group on facebook though & a Twitter account where I post teasers & stuff. Find me there:
facebook: http : / / www . facebook . com / groups / 233435886670472 /
Oh, and happy new year! May this one be happy & healthy for everyone. ~M