Erotic Review Magazine

The Emmett File

by Sara Dobie Bauer / 22nd October 2018

Charlie runs into an old friend at a New Year’s Eve party, the kind F. Scott would have written about…

“Whiskey is a sure fire cure for every illness.”

I know that voice — the only one with a British accent I heard out West. I spent three months chasing that voice through the streets of Tempe, Arizona, so I can’t help but stand at attention and wonder what the hell Emmett is doing in New York.

I’m at a New Year’s Eve party, the kind F. Scott would have written about. I don’t know the host, but my girlfriend does. I was all too happy to come along because I’m a novelist. People watching is my forte, and trust me, there’s a cornucopia of eye candy—good and bad—at this over-the-top hotel suite shindig.

A woman has a bunch of feathers on her head in the shape of a bird’s nest. There’s a man here in a pink suit. A pink suit. The bar is wide open, so middle-aged couples who can’t dance are dancing. There’s at least a short story here, between the endless glasses of champagne and frayed tinfoil decorations. Of course, it’s getting harder to be an observer anymore with the success of my latest novel. Women look at me differently. They appraise me as I pass, until they notice the woman I’m with and realize they don’t stand a chance.

Elaine is something else. She has a freckle on her right hipbone and a scar on her left wrist from where a dog bit her when she was a kid. Her hair smells like fresh fruit. I wonder if other people notice things like this or if it’s because I’m a writer and my attention to detail borders on OCD.

There are countless files in my head—one in particular marked ‘Emmett’.

A woman in a tiny black dress almost trips down the wide, winding staircase behind me. A man ten years her senior makes a diving catch. They share a giggle, a moment recorded forever in my mind. It’ll show up five years from now in some detective mystery, and I won’t be able to remember where it came from. I store images like this subconsciously. There are countless files in my head—one in particular marked ‘Emmett’.

Elaine puts her hand on my arm and squeezes.

“Cut it out, Charlie,” she says.

“What?”

“You’re cataloguing the entire party.”

I kiss her forehead. Her dark red hair is curled and hangs loose around bare shoulders.

I overhear a smattering of conversation over the din of Harry Connick, Jr. People talk about the atrocious New York winter. They talk about what they got for Christmas. Fictional dialogue is, thankfully, nothing like real life.

But it all comes back to, “Whiskey is a sure fire cure for every illness.” I’m not sure if I’m ready to turn around. I’m not sure if I’m ready to see Emmett after all the time that’s passed.

“What’s that hunky smile about?” Elaine asks.

I don’t know where to start.

***

I was still getting my bearings in Arizona when I spilled a scalding cup of coffee on another man’s crotch while walking out the door of a café. His reaction was understandable. He leaned forward and shoved the crown of his head against my chest. He gripped my shoulder and said, “Shit-bugger-fuck.”

I could only see a mop of ludicrously thick, dark red hair, and his hand was almost as hot as the cloying late May weather they called a “dry heat.” I still don’t know what that means, since I spent every day that Arizona summer soaked in sweat.

“Oh, my God, I am so sorry.” I put my hand on his elbow.

I’m tall—too tall, I think. It was always hard to find clothes that fit, especially as a starving artist at Arizona State University’s summer workshop program. I couldn’t exactly go to Goodwill. When I did, I ended up in the dressing room looking like a European in Capri pants.

When he stood up straight, this guy was almost as tall as me.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I didn’t want children anyway.” He smiled, which was a relief since I didn’t want to get hit in the face. My family joked about the Wild West, and I didn’t want to explain a black eye via Skype.

The bottom of his t-shirt was soaked, as were the front of his jeans. “Napkins. I can get you napkins.” I turned to head back into the coffee shop on Mill Avenue, but he stopped me.

“It’s all right. I’m headed inside, too.”

“I can buy you a coffee then.”

He nodded.

He held the door for me as we entered, and the girl behind the counter smiled and shouted, “Emmett!”

“Serena! Do you have the number for the Tempe burn unit?”

She noticed his jeans. “Oh, shit.” She giggled in the way only undergrad girls do, high-pitched and adorable. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, just give me a towel, would you? I’ll be using the loo.”

She handed him a bar rag with a touch of coffee grounds on one edge. I watched him make his way past the crowded tables and student-made art. He walked like an awkward teen, although judging by the smile wrinkles I saw outside, he had to be close to my age—at least early twenties, maybe older.

I went to the counter with my empty cup made of biodegradable recycled paper. “I, um … refill?”

She winked at me. The piercing in her eyebrow bounced. “No problem.”

“And I’d like to buy his coffee, as well.”

“Sure thing.”

She refilled my cup—coffee, black—and went on with her next creation, for Emmett. He returned a moment later, the coffee stain replaced by water. He was even wetter than before.

“Hell of a Monday.” He sighed and held out his hand to me. “I’m Emmett.”

I shook his hand. “Charlie.”

“Do you often attack innocents on the street, Charlie?”

I chuckled. “I’m really very sorry.”

“No permanent damage done.”

Serena returned and handed him a mug. He leaned across the counter and kissed her cheek. “My darling.”

The young barista’s face matched the red velvet cupcake in the display case.

Who was this guy? Real people didn’t talk like Emmett, act like Emmett. My suspicions were further confirmed when he moved to a nearby couch and said, “Come on, Charlie. Talk to me.”

“I really need to …” What? What excuse did I have? I really need to dust my almost empty pay-by-the-month apartment? I really need to study for classes I don’t have? What I needed to do was make friends, and I figured real writers liked making oddball friends. I sat next to Emmett.

“How long have you been in Arizona?” he said.

“Two weeks.”

He nodded and curled one long leg under the couch cushion.

“God, I don’t have a sign on my face that says ‘New York,’ do I?”

“Back sweat.”

I turned a little to face him. “What?”

“You have back sweat. Only transplants have back sweat in Arizona. Everyone else is used to the dreadful heat.”

“Unless there’s a little known British colony hiding in the mountains, I’d say you’re a transplant, too.”

“Ah.” He took a sip of foam. “But I’ve been here three years. You must be a student.”

“You must be a detective.”

He had an easy smile that seemed to linger permanently behind his lips. “People our age don’t move to this inferno on a whim.”

“So you’re a student, too?”

“Biochemistry. Masters.” He rolled his eyes. “I hate saying ‘Masters.’ It sounds so damned posh, but I didn’t want you to think I was nineteen. You?”

“Summer creative writing workshop at ASU.”

“And what do you suppose you’ll do with that?”

I shrugged. “Be a writer.”

He leaned forward so I could smell his latte and see his eyes were the color of a mossy pond. “But you’re already a writer.”

“How do you know that?”

He gestured to the room around us. “The way you look at things. Like you’re memorizing the entire world for your next opus.” He was suddenly engulfed in tattooed arms. A young woman stood behind our shared couch and squeezed him with her nose shoved in his hair.

“Hello, gorgeous,” she said. She pinched his shoulders as she stood.

“The dead do come back. I thought you might still be unconscious with your face in a shoe.”

She pointed at me, then at Emmett. “Do not drink with this guy.”

I watched her stroll behind the counter where she greeted Serena. Emmett wiped absent-mindedly at his shirt. I was usually so good at deciphering people. I could figure out backstory, motive, and eventual cause of death in minutes. Not Emmett. Emmett was a figure of mystery. When he invited me to dinner, I didn’t hesitate.

***

It felt like I was getting ready for a date. Why did it feel like I was getting ready for a date? I suppose no matter the age, we want to impress new people. We want to seem smart, articulate, and stylish. Emmett was definitely one of those things.

I could tell he was smart. What biochemistry Masters student wasn’t smart? He wasn’t exactly articulate. He talked like a Rubik’s cube: one line of red here, two lines of white there, but never the right combination. Stylish? So far from what I’d seen, he had a penchant for worn t-shirts and ripped jeans.

I decided on dark jeans with a white collared shirt. Before moving to Arizona for the summer, my mother threw away my favorite black button-down. What with my blond hair and blue eyes, she said wearing black made me look like a character from Twilight. I was surprised she even knew about Twilight, conservative as my parents were. My high school friends joked I was raised in a monastery.

Emmett had invited me to a place called Mellow Mushroom. I suspected a hippie establishment, as downtown Tempe was filled with them: shops that sold hookahs, sundresses made in India, and all sorts of herbal supplements. When I arrived, I realized Mellow Mushroom was really just a cozy pizza parlor with an extensive selection of beer. It reminded me of an old stand-by of mine in Little Italy.

Then, his hand was on my shoulder. Strange that I should already feel that much familiarity with a man I’d met once. I knew it was Emmett’s hand, sort of like you know when you’ve had too much to drink.

I turned around and almost didn’t recognize him. The crazy red hair was combed back and out of his face. He wore a black button-down—a dead ringer for the one my mom threw away—rolled up at the sleeves. He stood there and blinked at me. God, I was staring.

I cleared my throat. “You look different.”

“I play a student during the day.”

I followed him to the bar and felt oddly out of my league, like I’d suddenly realized I was hanging out with someone much cooler than me.

The bartender turned as we sat. “Emmett.” He reached between taps to shake my new friend’s hand. “Your usual?”

“Please. Saul, this is …” Emmett turned to me. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”

Flustered, I began to speak when I noticed Emmett smiling.

“Ass,” I said. He damn well knew my name.

“Saul, this is Charlie.”

“Charlie, what can I get you?”

“Whatever he’s having.” I turned to Emmett. “What’s the word they use on your little island? Git. You’re a git.”

“Yes. He is.” Saul slid two beers across the bar and then paid attention to other customers.

Emmett took a long sip. “So you’re from New York, yeah?”

I nodded. The beer was excellent—some kind of floral IPA.

“And you’re a writer,” he said. “I bet you hate when people ask what you’ve written, like they’re judging you based on your publications.”

For someone who just met me, I was surprised how much Emmett understood. I wondered what it was like in that big biochem brain of his. “And you’re a scientist.”

“Runs in the family. Father invented some vaccine; Mum lives in a lab coat. I’m fairly certain they expect me to fail miserably.”

“Why’s that?”

“They say I don’t take advantage of my full potential. I have too much fun.”

“No harm in that, right?”

“Not when you’re twenty-one. When you get to be twenty-six, people expect you to have a career or be married or some such thing.”

“No eligible women in your life?”

He chuckled, reached for a menu, and ordered a pizza for us with unusual items like chicken, artichokes, and no tomato sauce. I was beginning to think everything was foreign about Emmett.

He had a penchant for Jane Austen and eighties horror films. He practiced yoga five times a week. He detested cats and went so far as to say they would someday rule the universe. I watched as he and Saul got into a heated argument over the upcoming Arizona State football season. He knew about everything.

Despite growing up in the Big Apple, I had very little to go on in the way of life experiences. At twenty-three, I’d had one serious relationship, had never been in love. I’d only slept with two women. I could barely talk to most women, let alone good-looking ones. I watched too much television when I should have been writing. I’d never left New York City until my acceptance to the summer workshop program at ASU.

Compared to Emmett, I felt I was the remnant of a blown tire on the side of a freeway. The writers’ curse: a weak ego. It didn’t help that Emmett was better looking than me.

Emmett’s odd pizza creation was perfect. The IPAs were perfect. When we stepped into the summer air, even the night felt perfect. The sun had set, but tiny twinkle lights illuminated the immortal desert trees that lined the center of Mill Avenue. Kids were out in droves looking for a buzz. I floated on my full belly, my beer, and the presence of the man at my side.

“Nightcap at my place?” he asked.

“Of course.” I smiled.

Emmett’s apartment was exactly like him: charming and odd.

“Go on.” He waved his hand at me as he approached the kitchen. “Go through my things. Figure out all my secrets. Damn writers,” he muttered into the humming glow of his open fridge.

I thought I was bad, but Emmett’s book collection rivaled the Library of Congress. Several were textbooks. I recognized about a half dozen dog-eared Jane Austen novels. There was science fiction, horror, and comedy. No self-help. No surprise.

He didn’t have pictures on the walls. The wallpaper itself was decoration: an atrocious pattern of reds and oranges that mimicked cheap hotel lobby carpet.

He stepped to my side and gestured to the wall. “I didn’t do that. Came like that.”

“Sure, Emmett.” I accepted the beer from his hand. I took a few steps forward and then turned in a circle. “It’s funny. The only thing about you without personality is your apartment.”

“Probably because I’m never here.” He casually rubbed one thumb over his bottom lip.

I turned away to picked up a copy of Fahrenheit 451. “You might love books as much as I do.”

“Think so?”

I tossed Bradbury on a crooked pile. “Maybe.”

Then again, I’d never kissed a man before.

I felt his hand on my lower back, which made me stand up straight and face him. I expected a pithy comment; he dealt them like cards. Instead, he leaned in and kissed me, once, on the lips. His lips were surprisingly soft. Then again, I’d never kissed a man before. Maybe other men’s lips were usually soft. He went in for another, and I dipped my head.

“Uh-h …” I muttered.

“What?” He had his hand on my shoulder.

“Emmett, I’m not …”

I watched his eyes close. He pulled his hand off my shoulder. “Fuck, I usually have spot on radar for this. Shit.” He tugged his hand through his hair.

I felt an unfamiliar desperation, a fear of losing this friend I barely knew. Maybe it was the fear of losing a character like Emmett. “Please don’t make this weird. I’ve been here two weeks, and you’re the only person I’ve had a conversation with.”

“Charlie, God, I’m sorry.” He took another step away from me and leaned against the kitchen counter. “You just seem really comfortable around me. We went to dinner together. You kept staring at me.”

“Was I really staring at you? I’m sorry. It’s a cataloguing thing for writing. It’s probably why women think I’m creepy.”

Emmett smiled. Just like that, I knew the storm had passed.

***

We were inseparable. Emmett was a tutor in the summers since he refused to take summer classes. He said summer was for vacation, which made me conclude he would someday be a professor himself. When he admitted to this possibility, I laughed at the idea of Emmett being a teacher.

“What?”

“You’ll try to seduce all your male students,” I said.

“Why else would I be a professor?”

Over the course of our first month together, men flocked to Emmett like seagulls to bits of bread. It didn’t matter where we were. We could be blocks from the nearest gay bar, and men would find Emmett. They were always touching him—his hair, his cheek, or his hip—as though they wanted to make sure he was real.

Emmett got away with things no other human could, maybe because he was British. He kissed every woman he met on the cheek. He called them “darling” constantly. He said audacious, radical things, like “Led Zeppelin is the worst band of all time” or “The Simpsons is a shite TV show.” He was touchy-feely. When he wanted my attention, he didn’t say my name; he touched me. His warm hand became a constant reminder we were together, more so than his voice or even his laugh, which was maniacal in its jubilation.

We never talked about the night he kissed me.

We never talked about the night he kissed me. We never much talked about him being gay, except for the one time, over coffee, when I asked, “Was it difficult coming out to your parents?”

“Possibly for them, since they walked in on me having sex with a famous barrister.”

I’d never had a gay friend before. Most of the gay guys I’d met in New York had been flamboyant and bitchy, but Emmett was neither of those things. He was goofy, brilliant, and adoring. He loved people, and people loved Emmett. The whole town of Tempe seemed to know him. No one ever picked on him for his homosexuality. Of course, not many people pick on a man over six-foot-three, especially when said man’s best friend is six-six.

And that’s what I became: Emmett’s best friend.

***

One Friday night in July, we sat in Emmett’s apartment, surrounded by books. I’d found some fifties pulp novel with a half-naked woman on the cover crammed between two ancient copies of National Geographic. Emmett read a book I’d bought him: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace. Sometimes, I watched him read. He chewed on his tongue as he turned the pages.

My summer workshop at ASU was hell, my work was ripped apart on a daily basis—but I found comfort when I showed essays to Emmett and he smiled that infectious smile of his and said, “This is brilliant.” He was the only one who kept me afloat. The way I observed the world, catalogued it, often kept me awake at night. Emmett slowed me down some, because he fed me beer and conversation.

“When was the last time you went on a date?”

“Huh?” I looked up from the poorly written noir thriller.

Emmett’s green eyes still moved rapidly down the page of his book. “A date, Charlie. When was the last time you went on a date?”

“Oh. Uh, two-thousand-and …”

He slammed the book shut and groaned. “We’re going out.”

“But …”

“Put the book down, Charlie. We’re going out and finding you a bird.”

“I don’t think women like being called ‘birds’ anymore.”

He grabbed the book out of my hand and pulled me to my feet. “You’re not going out like that.”

I gestured to my Fat Tire beer shirt. “What’s wrong with this?”

“You look like a damn frat boy. Come on.” He grabbed my hand and dragged me to his bedroom. I’d been in there dozens of times. I took the occasional afternoon nap in his bed to the sound of him making tea in the kitchen.

He stood in the light from his closet with his fingers on his chin. “Take off your shirt.” He pulled out his army-green collar shirt—a favorite of mine—and helped me into it. Amazing that I’d found a friend almost as tall and broad as me. As he went from button to button, the shirt actually fit. “Good.” He smiled up at me and turned back to the closet. “I feel blue tonight.”

I knew he didn’t mean his mood. If Emmett’s mood could be described by a color … No, there was no color for Emmett’s mood. They would have to invent a new color.

He took off his t-shirt and tossed it on the edge of the bed. I’d never seen Emmett with his shirt off, and I instantly went into writer mode: pale skin, yoga-built torso, hairless chest (I suspected he shaved), and freckles on his shoulders. And what was that? I reached out and touched a slim, white scar above his right hipbone.

Emmett jumped. Strange that a man so touchy-feely would jump when my fingers found him.

“What’s this from?” I ran my fingertips over the scar.

He chuckled. “Got stabbed after a rugby match once.”

“You’re serious?”

“Rugby is serious.” He winked and reached for a blue V-neck tee.

I couldn’t wait to write Emmett.

***

He took me to The Basement Bar, literally in a basement off Mill Avenue. Neon lit the interior, which served the same purpose as candles and made everyone look more attractive than they would be in the morning light.

Even when he wasn’t “playing student,” Emmett had that walk: the silly walk that reminded me of an awkward teen. He wandered up to the bar and pulled me behind him with his hand on my forearm. He ordered two shots of whiskey and two IPAs.

“No. I don’t do whiskey.”

“Are you mad?” He scoffed. “Whiskey is a sure fire cure for every illness.”

“I suppose your scientist parents told you that.”

“Yes, just like cigarettes are rewards for getting good marks.”

I downed the whiskey begrudgingly, and it didn’t taste as bad as I remembered from my undergrad years, probably because I was with Emmett.

“So.” He faced the mob. “I don’t even know your type.”

“Funny, neither do I.”

He shook his head. I was glad he hadn’t styled his hair. I liked it better when it was all curls and spikes. Made him look like a friendly madman. “Why don’t you point out some birds you find attractive?”

I looked around at all the neon-lit faces and was surprised to realize I hadn’t noticed women in weeks. I was my most fully developed character, so it wasn’t often I surprised myself. I nodded toward a blonde with red lipstick.

“Ah, yes, the quintessential Marilyn Monroe type. Go talk to her.”

“What?”

“My God, have you ever been laid before?”

We’d never discussed my sexual history—or lack thereof. I’d never told him that I froze around beautiful women. With Emmett, I had no past, only a present.

“Go say something to her.” He shoved me forward.

I took stumbling steps through the crowd until I was two feet from a woman who was completely out of my league. I caught her eye. She smiled at me for a moment and looked away. I opened my mouth to speak over the sound of the Black Keys; then, I closed my mouth and scurried back to Emmett.

He smirked. “Utterly hopeless.” He walked right up to the girl with red lips, who stood there, staring at me with a confused expression. He said something to her, and she laughed. He leaned in close and whispered in her ear, and she did that thing people do to Emmett: she touched him and laughed some more. He glanced back at the bar and beckoned me over.

For the next three hours, Emmett and I moved in and out of conversations. He made friends like Vegas strippers made dollar bills. People bought us rounds. We were invited to join a bachelorette party. Never once did he leave my side, which was different. Usually when we went out, Emmett left early with an eight through ten on the attractive scale—but he said this night was about me.

By the time we left The Basement Bar, my world spun. The hellish Arizona heat didn’t help. Emmett bummed a cigarette from a drunk girl outside, and we started the walk back to his apartment since it was closer than mine.

I’d never seen Emmett smoke before. The affectation was practically obscene. He had these full lips. I’d noticed them before, of course, but the way he sucked the filter and blew smoke into the air—it was an art form.

An image flitted through my hazy mind. I saw myself pushing my friend against the nearest wall and … what? I wasn’t sure. I just wanted to feel his body for a second.

I don’t know if it was the whiskey or the smell of cigarette smoke. Whatever it was, I suddenly found myself bent over in an alley, puking my guts out. Emmett tossed his cigarette and kept his hand on my back. Between heaves, I slurred, “I think I remember someone telling me never to drink with you.”

“Lightweight.” He laughed.

He had to guide me up the steps to his apartment. Once inside, surrounded by blessed air conditioning, I leaned against the wall. Emmett fell back on his couch and closed his eyes. I found my bearings after a few deep breaths and made my way over to him. I lay down with my legs across his lap, and we passed out with the lights on.

***

The world felt crooked when I woke up—and much too bright, even with my eyes shut. I tried to swallow and found my tongue glued to the top of my mouth. I opened my mouth to free my tongue. It made a light popping sound. It took all my willpower to open my eyes and realize I was crooked, halfway off Emmett’s couch with my legs still on top of him.

Every muscle ached as I pressed my head off the ground and rested against the couch arm. I hadn’t felt a hangover like this since undergrad. A movie line ran through my mind: “I’m too old for this shit.”

Emmett snored contentedly, the bastard. Looking back into the hazy cloud of the previous night, I wasn’t even sure he’d been drunk. I wanted to smack him awake and demand water and aspirin. Then, the haze lifted and I remembered the moment when I wanted to put my hands on my best friend and shove him against the nearest hard surface.

I looked at him in the dim morning light that snuck around the corners of closed curtains. I remember thinking weeks ago that Emmett was better looking than me. Emmett was better looking than most people. His looks were part of why people liked him. I heard a rumor once that doctor’s offices put People Magazine in their waiting rooms because looking at attractive celebrity faces made people feel better. This was true of Emmett. Looking at him always made me feel better.

Was that why people touched him, too? Would touching him feel even better than just looking? I sat up, careful not to wake him. I reached out and touched the side of his temple with the tips of my fingers. I let my fingertips roam into the edges of his dark red hair. His skin was soft. His hair was soft. I remembered his lips being soft, too.

God knows why I kissed him, but when I did, his eyes popped open and he pulled away. He looked into my face, perhaps searching for the word “Yes” in my expression—and must have found it—because a second later, he kissed me with both his hands on my face. I wrapped my long fingers around the sides of his neck and pulled his mouth hard against mine. It wasn’t like kissing girls, but it wasn’t as I’d expected either: rough and demanding, as we men so often are. Emmett’s kiss was gentle but insistent.

I groaned his name against his mouth.

He leaned forward until he had me pinned beneath him on the couch with my hands in his hair. His fingers roved over my chest and stomach. Even when I felt the scruff of his unshaved chin, I kept kissing. Yes, I was kissing a man, but the man was Emmett. For some reason, Emmett was okay to kiss. No, Emmett was wonderful to kiss.

He pulled his mouth away and wrapped me in a crushing embrace. “You taste terrible,” he muttered against my neck.

We giggled like children.

***

The next month and a half was spent wrapped around Emmett. It was slow going at first. I had to explain my lack of sexual experience. He had to explain how he felt my lack of experience was a crime. Then, I discovered sex, for real.

Sex with Emmett was not the sex I’d had with women…

Sex with Emmett was not the sex I’d had with women, fumbling in dorm rooms and the back of cars. Sex with Emmett was not sex at all; it was “making love.” It sounds naïve and juvenile—but true.

I did love Emmett. I loved the scar on his hip. I loved the funny way he walked. I loved the noises he made in bed when I did something right. I was a novice, learning basic sentence structure, syntax, and punctuation. Emmett was my chalkboard. I wrote and erased, practiced and perfected.

By the beginning of August, he stopped using my name and just called me “love.” We read books with our long legs tangled together. We ordered takeout and skipped the bars. The people in my workshop stopped ripping my work apart, and one professor said I’d found my voice.

Emmett and I didn’t talk about me heading back to New York after the workshop ended, but as days turned to weeks, I found myself unable to leave his apartment without feeling an ache in my chest. I would catch a whiff of him on my clothes and have to swallow back sobs. People called from New York—friends and family—to say how much they missed me, how they couldn’t wait for me to get back home. I didn’t know where home was anymore.

The day arrived when I had to pack. Emmett came to my place and sat on my couch with the newest—and last—book I bought him, How to be Engulfed in Flames. I folded one of my shirts into the edge of my suitcase.

“You could come to New York, you know.”

“Hmm?” He looked up from reading.

I stared into his bright green eyes. “You only have two semesters left. You could come to New York after.”

“Charlie.” He closed the book and set it on the couch.

“You haven’t called me that in a long time.”

He stood up and put his hands on my cheeks. He kissed me. “Love.”

I pressed our foreheads together and sighed.

“I hate to be the one to tell you this,” he whispered. “I really do. But you’re not actually gay. You know that, right?”

I did. I knew it down to my toes. The thought of being with another man made my stomach twist. I didn’t even see Emmett as a man anymore. He was just a person I loved.

“Plus, I’m a terrible whore.” He smiled. “I’m not made for long term monogamy.” He ran his thumbs across my cheekbones. “You’ll forget about me. Promise?”

I nodded.

“You’ll go back to New York and become a famous author. Then, when you’re good and rich, you’ll find some Marilyn Monroe lookalike and have a dozen babies.”

“I don’t actually like blondes.”

He laughed. The “Emmett” file in my brain bulged.

I lied. I would never forget him.

***

“Charlie?” I feel Elaine’s hand on my arm. “Babe, speak to me.”

I look down at her. Her blue eyes are wide and troubled. I wonder how long I’ve been silent.

“Nothing,” I say. “It’s nothing.”

She leans up on her toes and kisses my cheek. “I’m going to get us another round. Jess is over at the bar.” She whispers in my ear: “I can’t wait to get you out of that suit later.”

I watch her saunter away. Every man in a twenty-foot radius turns to watch, too. The velvet box in my suit pocket feels hot.

I’m nervous to see Emmett, but not one inch of me believes it won’t happen. I hesitate before I turn, but I do turn and see him. It’s been ten years, and we’ve both gotten better looking. With literary celebrity, I was able to buy more expensive clothes and find a proper stylist. Sometimes, I even wear makeup for book signings.

Emmett is … Emmett. I assume he, too, did well, despite his responsible parents’ fears. He wears one of those black suits you only see in GQ but seldom in real life. Then again, Emmett never seemed really real. He was more like a cloud of positive energy. He was a warm hand on the shoulder.

His dark red hair is even longer now, but he’s found some product to force the curls into submission. The acquisition of additional laugh lines around his eyes only makes him more magnetic. Even though he’s almost forty, all I can see is the awkward-walking grad student who used to tickle me with his toes under white bed sheets.

He notices me looking and chokes on his drink. He laughs, and I bite my lower lip to subdue what teeters on a guffaw. The men he’s talking to notice his levity, but he shakes his head and looks away from me. One of the men—a tall guy with short black hair and dark eyes—puts his hand possessively on the back of Emmett’s neck and rubs his thumb behind his ear. Emmett curls into this embrace. He pretends to be listening to the conversation around him but casts occasional slant-eyed glances at me.

When he realizes I’m still staring, he reaches his left hand up to scratch his nose. His hand lingers, and I see what he’s trying to tell me.

Dear God, he’s wearing a wedding band.

Finally, I do laugh. I laugh so loud I get curious looks from strangers. Emmett turns to the handsome man at his side and says something. The man looks in my direction, nods. Then, Emmett—my Emmett—stands before me.

“You got fucking married?”

He smiles and leans in. “I’ve actually been kidnapped. You have to get me out of here.” He looks back at the man with the dark eyes. “We did it in Canada two years ago.”

“That is the weirdest thing ever.”

“God, I know. I’m one of those disgustingly happy married people everyone hates. Gives me the willies sometimes. You never wrote me.”

I want to touch his hair, so I put my hands in my pockets. “What, a letter?”

“No, you bloody idiot. You never wrote me into one of your books.”

Of course Emmett would read all my books. Emmett reads everything.

He says, “Kind of disappointing actually.”

I don’t know how to explain. I tried writing Emmett as a character. I tried writing him a million times. I wrote him down and threw him away, over and over. After years of trying, I knew he wouldn’t fit on paper. People like Emmett don’t behave on the page, but I never deleted his file in my brain.

I look down at my feet. “You told me to forget about you.”

“That was a load of bollocks. I knew you never would.”

“You haven’t changed at all.”

“No. Not really.”

“So are you a professor?”

He shakes his head. “No. Went with lab work. Bloody good at it, too. My parents are disappointed I didn’t disappoint them. Don’t need to ask how you’re doing.”

“I guess not.”

“Are you here alone?”

I nod toward the bar, toward Elaine.

“She’s stunning,” Emmett says.

She’s talking to a friend of ours. I see the soft skin of her bare back. I never realized her hair is exactly the same color as Emmett’s. “I’m proposing to her after the party tonight.”

He bites his bottom lip. “Congrats.”

“You don’t … Do you live in New York now?”

“What? God, no. Disgusting place. We live in London. I’m here for a conference.”

“I never thought I’d see you again.”

He takes a slow sip of his drink. “You pop up in my dreams sometimes.”

“I feel like I need to thank you.”

“For what? Fucking you senseless for two months?”

“Emmett.” I punch him in the arm, but he’s too busy laughing to care.

“Charlie, what on earth do you have to thank me for?”

I’m a writer, and I don’t have the words. They float around my brain in fragments: words like life, love, passion. “Just thank you.”

His puts his hand on my shoulder. Even blindfolded, I would recognize the weight of his touch in a throng of thousands. He doesn’t speak, which is, to say the least, out of character. He makes sure Elaine isn’t looking and gives me a quick kiss on the edge of my chin.

“Good luck tonight.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“Stop thanking me.” He rolls his eyes and takes a step back. “Bye.”

“Goodbye, Emmett.”

He shuffles back to his husband who puts an arm around his shoulder and kisses the side of Emmett’s head. Elaine returns seconds later with a fresh glass of champagne for her, IPA for me.

“I love you,” she says.

I hug her. “Love you, too.”

“I have a stupid idea.”

“I love stupid ideas.”

“Let’s chug our drinks and blow this pop stand before midnight.”

I lean my face against hers and whisper, “I know how to get to the roof.”

She smacks my chest. “You do not.”

“I do. I did an interview at this hotel once, and afterwards, the manager snuck me upstairs so I could have a cigarette without being bothered by the press.”

She shakes her head. “I should kill whoever taught you to smoke.”

I don’t tell Elaine that if she killed the man who taught me to smoke, she would also kill the man who taught me to love her.

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