TITLE: Like Making Love
AUTHOR: Ellen Milholland
SUMMARY: "So it began as all these things begin."
For: august, who made me do it.
So it began as all these things begin, in an obscure hotel bar in a nowhere city while rain splattered angrily against the windowpanes. It began to strains of soft, slow jazz and the smell of wet concrete. It began at the breaking point, and it all shattered from there.
He'd gone looking for her after midnight, maybe because he was lonely or maybe because he was worried at the way she'd held her head too stiffly all day long. He tried not to think about how she'd been holding her head like that for weeks.
They'd all tried to ignore it, because she was CJ and because she was unfaltering. Because she was brilliant, and beautiful, and caustic, and because they were afraid that if she was falling apart, maybe they all were. So he ignored the way her vertebrae clicking together all wrong, because it was easier to pretend she just wasn't sleeping.
There was no answer when he called her room number on the boxy phone on his bedside table, and there was only silence when he rapped on her door. The little 'do not disturb' sign hung on the doorknob, but somehow in the pit of his stomach, he knew she wasn't there. For a long time, he'd known whether she was in a room before he opened the door. It had been like that with his wife, but it'd never made his heart pound so hard back then.
So he'd gone looking in the place he really suspected he'd find her. And she was there, in the bar, at a back booth, drinking a whiskey sour from the look of it, and rubbing the back of her neck with one of her hands. She was reading a newspaper, squinting because she didn't have her glasses.
He ordered a ginger ale from the bartender, who garnished it with a little maraschino cherry, and he decided not to approach her. He chose instead to watch her for a while because though he saw her all the time on TV, he never saw her when she wasn't performing, when she wasn't "on." There was something novel about the idea of watching her when she didn't know she was being watched, though he wondered if she ever felt like she wasn't being watched.
She was slouching, that was what he noticed first. The second thing that he noticed was that she was wearing a pale blue tee-shirt like the sky and that underneath the table he could see that she was wearing jeans and thong-toed sandals.
He realized with a start that she was dressed like a normal, everyday person, sitting in a hotel bar. This surprised him even though he was wearing khakis and a polo shirt. It was somehow hard to come to grips with the fact that she was a regular woman, too, on top of being a businesswoman and on top of being brilliant and on top of being warm to the touch.
Her hair was all pulled away from her face with little clips, and she wore no makeup, her cheekbones sharp against the planes of her face and her eyelids pale.
It was not the first time he thought of how beautiful she was, but it was the first time he'd thought about it in anything but the abstract. It was the first time he'd noticed the shape of her collarbone or the strong curve of her jaw or how her toes were perfectly proportioned to her feet. It was funny, because in all the times he'd touched her, he'd never noticed any of these things.
By the time he looked up after a few moments of deciding exactly what color her toenails were painted, she was looking back at him, her eyebrows raised and her mouth bent into a tiny, self-mocking smile. She crooked her finger, asking him to join her, and for just a split second, his breath caught.
She moved so that there was room in the booth for him. He sat, his arms pale against the faux wood tabletop, his hands clenched into nervous fists.
She lifted her glass to take a drink, but sat it quickly back down on the table. The first thing she said to him was, "Is this okay?" She motioned towards the glass, and he thought he saw her hands shaking but he couldn't be sure. Her fingernails were carnation pink.
"It's fine. Don't worry." He didn't look at her face, but instead memorized the shape of her fingertips.
"I worry. It's what you pay me to do." She drank from the glass, long and slow, and he concentrated on the way her throat moved as she swallowed. She smelled like liquor and fake leather and old cigarette smoke and coffee and Anna Sui eau de parfum and sweat. She was beautiful, and he could taste her scent on his tongue like bitter candy.
He laughed, but it was dry. "No, that's what I pay Josh to do. Or Toby. I pay you to talk."
"Want me to talk?" She swirled the drink around in its glass, and the ice sounded vaguely like windchimes.
"Sure, why not?"
She pointed to her newspaper, bored. "I was reading about how Great Britain doesn't have a constitution. And, you know, I was thinking about how absurd that sounded, seeing as we were basically their accidental offspring, and all."
He smiled at her, took the newspaper and folded it and put it next to him in the booth. "You know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking about how absurd _we_ sound."
"Yeah, that, too." She drank, and then said, "Not quite as absurd as Tony Blair, you know, but--"
"How many of those have you had, CJ?" He knew she was drunk because she gestured wildly enough to look like she was making fun of herself. She also usually refrained from mocking the British until at least her second drink.
"Oh, this is only my, um, third. I guess." She stared at her hand as if counting on her fingers, and he watched her tongue dart out to lick the last of the alcohol away. He hated that it made him hard.
"See, if you have to guess how many you've had, you've had too many."
"What're you, my father?" she asked, pursing her lips.
"Nah, just the voice of experience." He didn't say it maliciously, but her hands turned into fists, and her knuckles turned white. She wouldn't meet his eyes.
She screwed up her face into a grimace. "Yeah, sorry. Blame it on the whiskey. Hey, it's, like, the middle of the night. Shouldn't you be asleep?"
"It's twelve thirty, and I haven't gone to bed before two in twenty years." He resisted the urge to touch her.
"Point taken." She threw her head back, shaking loose little pieces of hair and stretching her neck. "Do you know how much it, just... how goddamned annoying it is that we're just stuck here?" she asked as she brought her eyes back to his.
"Do you really think you need to tell me that? Hell, I get antsy when I'm away from my desk for twelve hours in a row." He gave in and reached over to brush her few strands of hair back from her face, and she didn't stop him, just sort of leaned her cheek into the touch.
"I hate pandering to all the Navy men down here in Republican-country. They ogle." Her voice was low, and he was glad, because he hated the idea that she was impervious while all he could think of was kissing her.
"Can you blame them? How could they resist you, all hot and bothered like you get in this weather?"
Her cheeks flushed, and he decided she was drunker than she looked. His easy flattery usually did no good with her. "Well, I guess you're right. Spring in the South makes me pretty irresistable. " She smirked half-heartedly, staring at his mouth. "But still. Republicans."
"Republicans are men, too," he admonished lightly, licking his lips and watching her pupils dilate.
"Oh, CJ," he laughed. A long silence followed, and they stared at each other, memorizing the shape of lips and eyes and earlobes. He breathed in, and her scent made him dizzy. He leaned toward her, brushed his cheek against hers, let his mouth touch her ear.
"We should probably, you know, talk," CJ said, all at once, leaning back.
"CJ, you're drunk. It's hard enough to have a coherent discussion with you when you're sober." He said it because he didn't want to have to face any more of her accusations. Her eyes were bad enough, big and wide and a little dangerous.
"Don't deflect seriousness with humor. I hate it when you do that." She shrugged and drank and avoided his eyes.
"I know you do."
"Why do you do it then?" She didn't look at him as she asked.
"I don't know. Hard to break old habits, I guess."
"Like sleeping with me?" He wondered if she ever would have said it if she hadn't been on her third mixed drink. He wondered if she ever would have said it if she hadn't been under the influence, and he wondered why it made his throat ache to think that she didn't trust him.
"Hey, it takes two, right?" He shifted uncomfortably.
"I know. Sorry."
"So, this is what we're going to do, every time?" He said it before he knew he was saying it, because he was concentrating instead on the sad jazz sax in the background and how appropriate that e minor was.
"What do you mean?" Her voice was like bad harmony, dissonant and cracking.
"We're going to sleep together, and then we're going to play coy little games to avoid one another for a while so that we don't have to face up to the fact that we do it every time?" He couldn't look at her face, couldn't stand the twist of her lip, so instead he stared down into the breaking bubbles in his glass or out the window into the rain.
"Well, I was thinking that I like regularity. I like to know what to expect."
He traced her knuckles with his thumb without looking down. "You're anything but predictable, CJ." He could feel her shuddering, and he swallowed hard. She was fragile, he knew, and she was waiting to crack, but instead of telling her this, he pretended not to notice.
"Oh, really? As if, by now, you haven't figured out that all you have to do is look at me with that-look, and the only question left is whether or not we wait 'til we get to a private room?" Her voice was too shrill, the way it got when she was holding herself back from ripping into him. She was too angry, too fast. He knew it wouldn't last, so he leaned forward and whispered in her ear.
"Oh, don't make it sound like I'm taking advantage of you." He grazed the back of her wrist with a fingernail.
She sighed after a moment. "If you are, I'm letting you. God, I need to get a grip," she said, but instead she ran her fingers up his arm to the crook of his elbow.
"Don't we all," he muttered, trembling.
"Don't do that! I hate it when you do that." He was confused, but then again, she did that to him a great deal. She was moving away from him, but he caught her by the arm and she froze.
"Do what?" he asked.
"That-- thing. It's annoying as hell, when you totally belittle everything I say like that."
"I'm belittling you?" He was genuinely incredulous because he respected CJ more than any woman he'd ever met. He suspected that she knew this, but he also suspected that she believed everyone looked down on her. He couldn't begin to understand her complexities, and he wondered if maybe that wasn't their problem.
"My words, at least."
"Funny, you're not the first person to say that."
"Maybe you should've listened more closely the first time, then." She lifted her hand and touched his face. She wasn't angry.
His voice low and rough, he asked, "Is this where you accuse me of being a chauvinist pig and storm out of here? Because as I remember, that's what happened the last time you and I were in this situation." He reached up and encircled her wrist with his fingers and he could feel her pulse.
"I was thinking about it, but then I decided that the bartender probably would be angry at me for taking my drink with me." She traced his eyebrows with a fingertip.
"So you want me to leave?"
She grabbed his chin between her thumb and forefinger just a little too roughly. "Jesus, Leo!" She was too loud, and she dropped her voice to a self-conscious whisper, "No, I don't want you to leave. Quite frankly, I want to fuck you right here on the table, but I'm not wholly sure that it'll hold our weight." Her breath came too quickly, betraying her arousal. He knew that she hated herself for being so transparent.
"You're probably right." He looked down at the table top, trying to force down the erection that was making his head pound.
The silence stretched out to its breaking point. "Could you just focus for, like, a second? I'm trying to have a serious conversation with you." That was her business voice, and so he looked up at her.
"Sorry, I got distracted trying to figure out if the table would hold us. Seems sturdy enough to me." He knew his nonchalance sounded forced, but he couldn't do any better.
"Leo," she warned.
"Okay, alright. This is hard. The last relationship I tried to make work ended with divorce papers and a few miscellaneous addictions, so give me a break here, alright?"
He held his breath until she spoke. "Did you just call this a relationship?" she asked, moving her hands to the farthest point from his body that she could find. They ended up sort of tucked behind her against the seat, awkward.
"Well, what else would you call it?"
"I'd probably call it having-sex-on-Leo's-desk-and-then-pretending-it- never-happened. But that's just me." She looked at him too hard for him to believe her. He wondered if she felt this thing, this terrible thing, as deeply as he did.
"See, now I'm trying to be serious, and you're being drunk."
"At least I have an excuse."
"Okay, no more alcohol for you."
"Alright, so I'm being serious now. Let's talk about this." She splayed her fingers against the table, like laying her cards out.
"CJ, I'm trying."
"So you've said."
"That's not what I mean. I'm trying to come to terms with this." He motioned between them.
"Well, I didn't think the sex was all _that_ bad," she joked humorlessly.
"Yeah, sorry." He could tell that she desperately wanted to lighten the mood, both because of her voice and because of her toes creeping up his leg.
"Because I don't want it to be just about sex, because I'm just not as much of a chauvinist as you make me out to be."
"You say that like there could be more than sex between us, Leo. Listen to yourself." Her toes reached his thigh.
"Good Lord, CJ. I've been listening to myself for days, like this, making my head hurt and giving me one hell of a case of indigestion. And so now I'm telling you, because we're trying to talk about this." He held her foot beneath the table, tracing her toes with his fingers, tracing the arch, tracing her heel.
"Leo, I don't think we can do this." Her voice was nothing but air, and she pulled her foot away from him slowly, reluctantly.
"Bullshit. Stop deflecting."
"I mean it. Look, we can't even have a civil, coherent conversation."
"So you're saying that the fact that a drunk woman and a man who hasn't slept in more than 26 hours should be able to have a perfect conversation on their first try?" He sounded bitter, and he knew it. He just wanted things to be right.
"Well, that was the plan, at least."
"Leo, you're scaring me." It was sudden and painful and childlike. She dropped her eyes.
"Hey, CJ, I'm sorry," he soothed, tilting her chin back up with a finger.
She ignored him. "I'm worried that if you keep talking to me like this, this sweet talk, that I'm not going to be able to say no the next time you kiss me."
"Are you going to say no?"
She didn't hesitate. "Of course I'm not. That's my point. And I'm afraid--" Her voiced trailed off.
"I'm afraid that I won't want to say no. I'm afraid that I'll want to say yes, and that I'll want to keep saying yes."
"And, you know, most of all I'm afraid that you'll ask me out to dinner or whatever normal people do when they have relationships and that I'll say yes, and then I'll have to deal with the fact that I want you so much sometimes that my chest hurts." Her face flushed.
"Whoa, CJ, breathe."
"Yeah, okay." She gulped down a breath.
"CJ, how did this start?"
"Well, I was sitting here, and you were checking me out from over--" She motioned with her head.
"Work with me here, CJ."
She sighed. "It started with the MS. We were all a little on edge. I think I was drunk, maybe, the first time, or maybe I just hadn't slept in a week or something like that. And you touched my back, and for that split second, I forgot that the country was going to hell. You saying you don't remember?" She raised her eyebrows, and she held her breath.
He leaned in close to her face, his mouth near hers. He felt her sharp exhale when he answered, "Nah, I remember. I just wanted to make sure you did, too. I hoped you didn't forget that feeling."
"It was a little like being drunk, in fact."
"It might have been love, you know," he said, and he kissed the tip of her nose.
"Leo, don't be silly." She almost smiled at that.
"Sorry, wanted to make sure you were still paying attention."
"Leo... would you just kiss me, or touch me, or just fuck me already, because I really can't talk like this anymore." She reminded him of a paper doll, flimsy and failing. Her skin was cool and soft against his cheek.
"You wanted to talk, CJ," he whispered in her ear.
"We can talk tomorrow."
"Okay, yeah. Tomorrow." He knew that dozens of tomorrows had already passed, but he was as willing as she was to put it off indefinitely, those admissions of need and lust and perhaps love.
"So do something already." It was the voice she used when she was trying to be sexy, but it only came off vaguely desperate and adolescent. He didn't know how to tell her that she didn't need to try so hard.
He took her hand, kissed the inside of her wrist, stood up. "Let's go."
"Are we going to have sex now?"
He shrugged and looked at her hard. "I was thinking maybe we'd make love."
"Oh, Leo. I hardly remember the difference anymore, if I knew it in the first place." Her eyes burned holes through him.
"Sometimes just looking at you is like making love, CJ. And I had to live a lot of years to figure that out."
"If you say so. Come on, let's go."
Later, when she was asleep, and her breathing was slow and regular and true, he touched his fingers to her throat, and her breasts, and her stomach, and she smiled in her sleep. He wondered if maybe this wasn't, just maybe, if this wasn't what love had felt like.
He knew it was wrong, but he pretended it was right, and so he traced a
heart around her navel, and fell asleep like that, his fingers splayed
against her belly, and when she said his name in her sleep, he heard
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