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Chapter 32

 Chapter 32

Ever since Thanksgiving I've been dreading Christmas, but it turns out that all the advance worrying and cringing is for naught.

For the first time in ages my parents have decided not to celebrate at home, but jet to Hawaii instead. I can see my mother's hand in that, but don't feel like complaining. In the card attached to the envelope she's left for us, she snidely comments that she's also 'giving us peace and quiet'

together with plane tickets and a hotel suite reservation for three for the week of the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California, the first week of August.

The rest of our collective family members we avoid like the plague, feeling childish about it, but Thanksgiving has left us uniformly weary. We've decided not to tell anyone yet that our happy threesome living arrangement feels like it's bound to stay permanent. Due to distance and busy schedules, Jazz drops out of seeing his folks, and Bella takes the drive to see Charlie and Sue alone, combining it with meeting someone for an interview in northern Oregon.

The week before Christmas, we are obliged to attend the various Christmas parties for our respective workplaces, but somehow the three of us always avoid showing up together. The fondue evening at Rose and Emmett's hardly counts as a social minefield, although some altercations ensue over dropped and supposedly stolen meat and vegetables. I call or email most of our other friends, and in the end there's only one glaring omission on that list - Alice.

The days around Christmas and New Years are spent in fear of the next phone call from one enraged relative or another, as Alice knows them all and is bound to talk to them. Her behavior at Thanksgiving dinner has shown that she's fully capable of planting the seeds of potential future disasters, but when the second week of January rolls around without Charlie knocking on our door, a sawed-off shotgun at the ready, I slowly start to relax.

Life is busy enough as it is, with extra shifts at the hospital, new coworkers, a second permanent assignment for Bella and plenty of projects for Jazz's budding business. Even if I had the time I wouldn't be able to meet with anyone, but as the weeks go by, I realize that the dissension with my closest friend of so many years is eating me up.

And it's not just me, or rather, my own grumpiness is slowly beginning to weigh on the others, too. Bella is starting to snap at me in every other conversation we have, few as they are because of my crazy work hours, and Jazz is acting weirdly at times. Only when we fuck do things seem to even out and return to a harmonic state, but even a horndog like me eventually realizes that this is not a good state to be in. Even less so when things are emotionally complicated to begin with.

And complicated they are. Although I'm trying to fight it, I find myself prone to being jealous of all the time Bella and Jazz get to spend together while I'm not around. I know that they don't fuck - not only because it should be obvious as their behavior towards each other hasn't changed at all, but also because Bella screams it in my face when I behave like an ass one evening and hint at them getting it on behind my back. She doesn't talk to me for three days afterwards - the first deliberately, and the next two because of a forty-hour shift - and then ignores my attempts to apologize.

Jazz tries to stay out of it but is obviously on her side. He only responds to my questions with short answers; his own disapproval is so plain in every word and every look that I feel even worse.

Somehow living together turns out to be a lot more work than any of us seemed to have expected.

But it's not only me who causes dissent. Bella and Jazz also do their own damage, keeping things less than harmonious between us as the weeks pass by. While not an issue at first, the severe lack of privacy is driving Bella mad, used as she is to spending her days on her own, and since we've been together, some of her nights, too. More than once I've come home to find them fuming at each other. Bella goes ballistic when Jazz spends a night at one of his business partners after working long past their sketchy business hours. Instead of being able to savor an evening together with just the two of us, she glares at me whenever I try to touch her. The moment Jazz returns in the morning, she's in his face. Stupid as I am, I try to pacify her even though I myself can't help but be a little suspicious of what he has been up to. When my patience finally snaps and I order her to shut up and go upstairs, I'm the one she ends up being mad at. I have to run to work so I try to ignore her baleful stares, and the merry tip-toeing around each other starts anew.

Rose is the only one I feel I can talk to about this, seeing as she's also hungering for attention and someone to talk to who has the intellectual capacity to at least carry on a conversation. She's mostly amused but doesn't laugh at me, but she does give me the only piece of sane advice that she can - hang in and work it out.

Of course that's a lot easier said than done, but eventually I reach a point where I decide that I'm not doing anyone a favor by ignoring the one thing I can get resolved without either Bella or Jazz sabotaging me - my friendship with Alice.

I have to admit, I'm not sure I want to mend things with her when I ring her doorbell and wait for her to buzz me in. The things she said in the past are enough to make me want to cut her out of my life completely without a second chance, if she really believes them. It would be so easy to ignore that 'if' and mentally replace it with an 'as', like Bella does, or try to get over her without wanting to see her ever again, like Jazz, but that's not my way.

The more I think about it, the more my mother's words make sense to me.

As things aren't entirely awesome between me and the other two, I decide I might as well give Alice one chance to explain. Knowing her, I don't even expect an apology, and I don't dare to hope that, even if everything resolves itself miraculously, our friendship will be as it was before, but I just need to know.

She doesn't answer the door and my heart sinks, but I'm too set on this to give up now, so I get my phone out and call her. A wise decision as it turns out, minutes into our phone call. At first she's wary and sounds cold, but still agrees to meet me later at her place, when she returns from the photo shoot she's at right now. By the time I hang up, we both sound almost civil, so I try not to panic until I get back to her door three hours later.

I don't know what I was expecting, but when I see her standing at the door, holding it open for me, my first reaction is concern. It's been over two months since I last saw her, and the woman standing there neither resembles the vibrant, immature girl I've known for more than half of my life, nor the self-righteous bitch I learned to hate over Thanksgiving. She has gained weight - at least ten pounds - and it actually looks good on her, but her eyes are sunken and surrounded by dark rings, speaking of lack of sleep and other things. I've never seen her wear so little make-up or almost ordinary clothes.

"Hi," I offer as I stop at the door, not knowing what else to say.

"Hi," she echoes. "Do you want to come in? I'm only blocking the door to keep Mr. Fibbins from escaping into the wild freedom of the stairwell."

"Mr. Fibbins?"

Before she can answer, a black furry head appears at her ankle, bright green eyes staring at me before the cat gives a demanding yowl. Alice smiles and picks him up, rubbing her face in his fur as she steps aside to let me in. I follow, even more bewildered. Alice and a cat? Unlike many women I know, she's never liked pets, and I can only imagine what the shedding fur and the claws will do to her design projects.

Although I've been to her apartment more times than I can count, it's as if I'm stepping into another world. Of course there's the addition of a cat climbing tree and a few pillows for the furry critter to sleep on, but that's not the most obvious change. Gone is all the clutter, the tons of useless yet decorative items, leaving the old furniture looking completely different.

Everything is clean and simple, making our condo look like Ikea exploded in it by comparison.

"Alice, what's going on?"

I'm still standing near the closed door, and haven't even taken off my shoes and coat, but I can't ignore this a moment longer. It feels as if I'm caught in a David Lynch movie.

Putting the cat down on the sofa, Alice turns back to me, a flicker of her old self surfacing when she raises her brows.

"What do you mean? I've redecorated, so what?"

"Redecorated?" I ask lamely. She nods, but then chuckles sadly, shaking her head.

"Not just my flat, though. Do you want coffee? Tea? Soda?"

Shaking myself out of my apathy, I ask for coffee, then walk over to the sofa. I sit down opposite the cat, who, ignoring the general weirdness of the situation, is licking his butt. Alice soon returns with two cups of coffee, then, after another trip to the kitchen, a plate of cookies that she puts down on the table between us. Not some fat-free, low carb, no sugar atrocities, but normal, honest-to-God homemade chocolate chip cookies. I watch with even more wonder as she pops one into her mouth, then munches for a second without even batting an eyelash.

Of course she notices my stare but ignores it, adding sugar to her coffee before she starts spooning the milk foam the top.

"How are things at the hospital?" she asks, idly scratching the cat between his ears. Forcing my bewilderedness to stop messing with my vocal chords I shrug.

"Hectic, the usual. We've got a new Orthopedic Surgeon; half of the doctors hate her, the nurses love her, and we're becoming friends fast. Her name's Zoe Thompson, and she's from Bristol. England."

"Oh, the British Invasion is rallying for a new wave," Alice jokes, then falls silent, the moment immediately turning awkward.

"And you?" I ask, nearly tripping over my own words.

"Hectic, the usual." She repeats my sentence again, her smile slowly gaining in sincerity. "Working with the Brits seems to be a common theme of late. I'm co-designing a new line with a new design label from London.

Very low-key, off the catwalks, but she's got great connections to a few Indie bands who we're trying to convince to do the marketing for us if we give them the clothes for free. Who knows, SplashDump might be the new Kings of Leon in a year or two. And if not, I still get to travel to London every few weeks and listen to awesome music. Things could be worse."

It's as if I don't even know the woman sitting there, grinning for a moment with the obvious joy change is adding to her life.

"What about your other work, your label?" I can't even remember what she called it, but she doesn't seem to mind my slip.

"Sold it."

"Just like that?"

"Yup. Figured it was a good time, seeing as my assistant was ready to mutiny and defect to a major label, so I offered to let him take over.

Technically I still own ten percent of it, enough to pay the rent, but he doesn't even need my okay on any executive decisions besides re-selling the company or kicking me out completely."

"And you're okay with that?" I don't even try to hide the incredulity in my voice. Her label has been the only thing she's lived and breathed for since her second year in college, and dumping all that seems just insane.

"Do you mind if I excuse myself for a moment? Need to use the bathroom,"

I offer lamely, then quickly get up when she just nods.

"You know the way. But if you're looking for any kind of anti-depressants or other psychotropic drugs in my medicine cabinet, I can spare you the trip.

You won't find any."

I halt in mid-step, biting my lip at having been caught, but still continue on my way there, although I keep my activities to just taking a piss. When I return, Alice is sporting a half enigmatic, half wry smile.

"Found what you were looking for?"

"Toilet paper and soap, yeah, but without the knit doily I nearly didn't recognize the backup roll."

"Smartass," she snorts, then nibbles on another cookie. Seeing as my stealthy attempt has failed, I go on the offensive.

"Not that I disapprove, but why the change? All this -" I look at the spartan décor around us, "so doesn't fit you."

"Maybe I just didn't fit the frills anymore?" she offers, then finishes her coffee and gets up for a refill. I check, she even takes real cream. No wonder she has put on weight, pushing her into the comfortable lower range of what a woman her height should be. When she returns she hauls the cat onto her lap, not reacting to his claws sinking repeatedly into her dark blue jeans.

"Do you really want to know?"

I nod, then try to be the one to offer the white flag first.

"Friends care about what happens in each other's lives, right?"

"I guess they do," she says, but contrary to what I have been hoping for, she sounds sad. Then she narrows her eyes and looks intently at me, the cat all but forgotten. "Do you realize that I don't even know what field of medicine you chose? I mean, I know now because I ran into Esme last week and asked her, but you must have told me hundreds of times and I only remembered which hospital you were interning for because your dad worked there for years. Doesn't that strike you as peculiar?"

I don't really know what to say, but I can guess what she wants to hear.

"Alice, you've always been a superficial person -" I can barely censor the need to say 'bitch', "and about as egocentric as they get. But that's nothing new, I wouldn't have been your friend for so long if I hadn't accepted that, nor would I have shown up here with the expectation of finding anything different."

For a moment she seems ready to cry, but then gets a hold on herself, trying hard to pretend my words didn't affect her.

"Well, guess that means the long version then."

She falls silent for a moment, gnawing on her lip before she resumes talking.

"I guess I finally realized that things were not right. With me. All around me.

To be honest, first I believed everything and everyone else wasn't right, but eventually a bit of self-reflection started seeping in. After Thanksgiving -"

she stops, then swallows but goes on immediately, "I told Nate that I needed to be alone. I shut myself in, turned the phone off, disconnected the landline. I think I cried for a straight day. Then I fell into some kind of apathy, didn't sleep, eat, shower, read, watch TV, just sat there and did nothing. I got lonely, then cried again when I saw that I only had three missed calls on my phone, and all of them were from my assistant. I went out to get a cat, for company if you will, but the local pet shop couldn't tell me the addresses of any of the high class breeders of any of the breeds I was considering. A little desperate at that point, I went to the animal shelter down the street and picked up Mr. Fibbins. He looked so alone but kept hissing at anybody who came close, and I felt an instant connection."

I briefly look at the cat, purring and completely at ease, wondering at just how weirdly in sync they are.

"Of course when I got home he just added to the chaos, and when cleaning up after him became too much of a bother I started throwing things away that he broke. And then other things, too, until all the clutter was gone. He only drinks cream so I had to get some, and when the bottles always went bad, I started drinking it, too. Then I ran to the closest supermarket, bought a ton of chocolate, ate it, then made myself puke because I had eaten it.

Realized that bulimia wasn't something I needed to drag myself into again, so I forced myself not to puke after the next bar. It tasted really good, even if I cried through most of it."

"Again?" I have to interrupt her, suddenly weary.

Alice offers me a small smile. "There are things you don't know about me, either, not just the other way around."

Exhaling loudly, she resumes, her tone once more clinical and flat as she continues with her recount.

"Then Christmas, I went to see my family, big mistake. My mother was horrified at the cat hair and the one scratch on the back of my hand, then was scandalized that I was drinking coffee with real cream, and told me I looked unhealthy because I had started to gain weight. I just turned around and called a cab, and spent the night in a hotel at the airport before I caught the next flight home. Then I threw out the remaining clutter, and brought half of my wardrobe to the nearest homeless shelter. Just couldn't look at it anymore, it had her written all over it, not me.

"Because I couldn't work, either, I went to see some college friends of mine who had moved to London, where I met Cecile, and realized just how much more I loved working with her. Sold my label, as I said, got a new 'healthy living' cook book, then bought a bunch of ten dollar a pair jeans and they were the best ones I had ever had. And ever since then I have pretty much have been working on building the new me."

I take that all in in silence, and I don't know what to say even when she's done. While I hung out a lot at her family's home before they moved to Florida a few years ago, I never realized the amount of tension that must have existed between Alice and her mother that would cause things to blow up like that, but in hindsight it all makes sense. I guess I always thought they were just close, but not in a way that made Alice feel like she had to eventually break away from her.

"What about Nate?" I finally ask when the only other thing I can think to bring up is more likely to cause some nasty bickering.

"We broke up. Kind of," she sighs, then shrugs. "I told him I really needed to be alone, he tried to offer me a shoulder to cry on, and I kicked him out, telling him I didn't need anyone's sympathy. He still wouldn't go and I told him that I'm not the woman he thinks I am. He told me that I don't know that, and that I'm not really like I acted at the dinner. We kept fighting, and he finally left me alone when I promised I would call him once I felt better.

We've been on a few dates since then, but I'm keeping my distance. He still insists that he sees the real me and has fallen in love with her, but how can he see that when I can't? Guess I'm too weak to cut him free, but he's old enough to know if he wants to waste his time with a crazy bitch or not. We'll see, maybe eventually I'll trust him and believe him, seeing as I can't see anything clearly anymore."

It's strange that she sounds more like she's musing over the topic, detached and trying out possibilities in her head, than talking about her love life. She's weirding me out, but at the same time I feel like this is the first real conversation we've had since


Before I can think of a reply, her gaze turns a little jaded, and she herself pokes the big elephant crammed into the room with us.

"So how are things with Bella and Jazz?"

No way to avoid that topic now.

"Difficult but good."

My answer doesn't sit well with her, but not for the reasons I expected. She mostly seems as if she's hurt but not surprised that I don't go on explaining.

"Guess it must be difficult with three people in the mix, when two are sometimes already impossible enough."

I grin in spite of myself, considering how often Bella alone calls me

'impossible'. Alice keeps looking at me expectantly, so I finally try to add a few more sentences.

"True, but the problems we keep bumping into aren't the ones I've been waiting for. It sometimes seems as if we're deliberately trying to drive each other crazy. And many things explode way more quickly than they used to, and everything escalates, but also diffuses faster. Or maybe that's just us -

mope, shout, then make up. You just end up saying things differently to a friend than to someone you love, and the weird mixture we're cultivating is forming its own dynamic in that spectrum."

She nods as if my words make sense to her, then munches another cookie.

"Just how mad are they at me?"

I consider what to tell her for a long time, but don't know what to say in the end.

"Why did you say what you said at Thanksgiving?" I ask her instead, feeling that if I understand her, maybe I can give her a better explanation about how things are between us and her.

Alice falters for a moment, and for a while I think she is just going to shut me out again and not tell me anything at all, but then she continues anyway.

"I really don't know. I wasn't really myself, I was in a bad place, everything kept getting worse and worse - and I'm not saying this as an excuse, but as an explanation."

She turns away from me then and looks out the window, her voice again hollow when she resumes.

"Things were going bad a long time before that. Even before summer.

Sometimes I don't even remember when they were any different. I mean, I didn't feel like everything was all that bad, I did my thing, tried to be who I thought everyone expected me to be: happy, superficial, exuberant Alice with a killer fashion sense and sage advice for everyone. Pretty stupid, huh?"

I don't reply, but I don't think she's really waiting for an answer.

"I guess when Jazz told me what you three had been up to, that should have been a wake-up call for me. Not because my three best friends were fucking each other behind my back, I mean, duh, just the spacial arrangements considered that probably shouldn't have been such a surprise. But it was, because I simply couldn't wrap my head around it, and my only reaction was to lash out, then try to ignore it. I guess on some level I realized that I had lost any connection I had to you and Jazz because I completely withdrew from you, then tried to fit what I had to into my perfect little world."

The fact that she doesn't mention Bella isn't lost on me.

"Anyway, I decided to make the best of it, grow up, turn my life around.

Only that didn't really turn out so well. Nothing fit, and if I hadn't been so afraid of being all alone, I would have told Jazz after a month that it wasn't working. But I couldn't. I tried to change him, and when that didn't work I gave up. Guess I was just waiting for everything to blow up in my face again. That's why I brought Nate to the Thanksgiving dinner, I knew that there wasn't a chance in hell that could work out. Only then it looked like it really would, so I had to make sure myself that it didn't."

She falls silent, looking everywhere but at me, before finally she catches my gaze. The pain in her eyes is so palpable that I can't even feel angry at what she did anymore.

"But why? We're your friends, you could have told us. And if not me or Jazz, maybe Rose? You know that she would have listened, and maybe made you see reason?"

"There was nothing she could have said that would have changed things for me. I didn't see it all as I see it now, I was so in over my head and so desperate and lost and... see, I can't even explain it now! But one day I woke up and no one in the whole world understood me anymore, didn't know who I was, and at the same time all of you were strangers to me! I didn't know how to deal with that, and things only got worse, so I did the only thing I still could, I tried to hang on to the delusions. But then I met Nate, and with him I was suddenly someone else. It wasn't even sexual attraction at first between us, that came much later. And I hated myself for sleeping with him because I knew I was cheating on Jazz and that he'd never forgive me when he found out, but locked inside my head, it seemed like him shoving me away was exactly what I deserved. I waited and waited for him to catch on, but he just didn't, we went through the motions like before, pretended to be happy, and that drove me insane! He forced me to end things, and I did, about the only mature thing I've done in years."

She is silent for a while, but I can tell from the way her lips keep moving haphazardly that she's trying to find the right words.

"Things between me and him would never have worked out. He should have seen that. Heck, you should have seen that! Friends with benefits who fuck every once in a while when we're both horny and no one else is at hand, sure, but not living together, not being a couple, not trying to build a family and get old together! I kept trying to make him see that but he wouldn't, I did every insane thing I could think of to make him realize that we wouldn't work, but it was as if he had made it the center of his world. He was obsessed with that idea of us, and it killed me every damn day to see him like that.

"For a while I was hoping that Bella would drag him out of it, but for once she didn't act like she had to save him from me. And you, you weren't helping with your moping around and hostility, changing moods so quickly it gave me whiplash when I might have tried to talk to you. I was reaching for the last straw when I tried to find a connection between us again, but I couldn't go on with that, I knew you'd hate me for what I said to Jazz when I broke up with him. Had to, or else he would have found another reason to try to hang on. Do you have any idea how hard it is to repel someone you know loves you and who you, on some level, love back?"

She's crying by then but only glares at me when I start to get up, so I remain sitting and just watch her as she blows her nose and wipes her eyes until she can talk with a shaky voice again.

"I really don't want your sympathy, I did what I did and I won't justify it with any stupid excuses. I got what I deserve, although it was something different than I expected. I got to finally see through all my own bullshit and turn my life around. If getting there cost me my closest friends, I can't change that. I really am so sorry for what I did and what I said, but it's done, and I have to move on. If it helps, I never had any problems with the choices you made, or your sexuality. I want no part of it, I don't understand it, and I guess because of that, aspects of it repel and frighten me. But I know that both you and Jazz are good guys, and if that's your thing, it can't be that bad.

"I'm happy for you if you think things will work out for you both with Bella, and I wish you all the best. Yes, I'm resentful of your happiness, but you've earned it, and I think that, given enough time and effort on my side, I will either make things work with Nate, or find someone else. I won't ask you to forgive me because I won't believe you if you say you do. I'm not that person anymore, and I would love to get to know who you've grown up to be if you want to see who I really am, but if not, I will learn to live with that, too."

I hadn't expected to hear something like that from her ever, and to honor her honesty I don't say anything, but instead answer her previous question, the weight already lifting from my heart.

"I don't think there's anything in the world you could say or do that would make Bella consider you a friend. You ridiculed her twice in front of everyone, you hurt the two people she cares about the most, and to her way of thinking, you've already fucked up your second chance."

Alice takes that in without showing any emotion, then nods for me to go on.

"Jazz - I really don't know," I sigh. "He's hurt, damaged even, but I think he's healing well and finally got the message you were trying to make him see. I don't know if he could try to be friends with you, or would even want to. I know he doesn't hate you. I think he still loves you."

I try to be as honest in my assessment as possible, even if the words pain me. Not just because of the sympathy I always feel for him, but mostly because I think I would have acted the same way. Somehow it rankles that while there's nothing there between them anymore, he still wants her on some level or another. While she tries to remain indifferent, I see the pain in her eyes, and her tone is dejected when she answers.

"Guess that's more than I could have hoped for. And you?"

That answer is much easier to find, if not exactly easy to give.

"I think I'd like to get to know the new Alice. She reminds me of someone I used to know, but kind of lost contact with over the last few years."

She offers me a weak smile, mirroring my own sentiments perfectly.

"Even if your two plus ones, or is that your plus twos? Whatever, even if they probably disapprove of our association?"

"No one tells me who to see and talk to, and that doesn't change whether I live with one person or two. They'll have to get over it. And I know that eventually they will."

I guess the old Alice would have squeed and hugged me now, but the more sober version of her now leaves it at that sad smile.

"Well then, how about we meet for coffee next week again? And if things work out, I might beg you to look after the cat when I'm in London. I can't really leave him alone and I don't know too many people who I would want to give the keys of the apartment to, either. Your mom already offered but it's nearly an hours' drive for her, and Rose can't really go outside with the baby when it's so cold."

"Sure, just tell me and I'll come over."

"Great. Thanks."

And just like that, we run out of things to talk about. A first for us, but without her constant need to put herself in the limelight, we'll probably need a little time to find a slightly different dynamic in our conversations.

Still, things are more or less comfortable when we hug good-bye - a warm, close body contact hug, not the air kisses she used to give - and I leave her with the cat on the couch and let myself out. In the hallway, just after donning my coat, I notice a picture frame face down on the mantle of the wardrobe. It's the only one left in the whole apartment, another weird thing I've noticed as she had pictures everywhere before. Curious, I pick it up and turn it over. It's a picture of the four of us - me, Bella, Alice and Jazz -

from our vacation together in Mexico. Must have been taken on the last day as I'm badly sunburned with freckles all over my nose, Bella is sporting a killer tan, Alice's hair isn't impeccably styled, and Jazz is still looking vaguely hungover.

I don't know why but I feel compelled to stand it up on the wardrobe, leaving it there like that.


The talk with Alice has left me drained, but oddly happy at the same time. I keep mulling over what she said on the way back home, trying to come up with a good explanation as to why I didn't catch on to any of this, but I come up blank. I've been too concerned with my own bullshit to deal with hers, and in the end it doesn't matter as she should have been able to do it on her own, or ask for my help outright.

Seeing that picture in the hallway also made me realize that all of us have been through a journey, each in our own way. Not long after the picture was taken, I fell for Tanya, Bella wavered around until she convinced herself that I would never want her, Alice turned away from all of us because she thought - rightly so - that we were a bunch of immature children, and Jazz dragged along a girl named Brenda. In a way we could have spared ourselves all the years of emotional pain, because a mere six months after that picture was taken we got about to where we are now, minus a lot of experience and a few funny anecdotes, but still.

Somehow that makes me sad at all the wasted time we would never get back, but at the same time it solidifies my conviction that we'll make it work.

And by "we" I mean Bella, Jazz and myself. Whether things with Alice work out or not is out of my control, and no longer the festering wound that has been plaguing me for months.

All that mulling over old times leaves me in a surprisingly good mood, at least until I get home and can already hear Bella and Jazz before I even reach the door. They are at it again - fighting, and only fighting, as I've had to find out the hard way. For a moment the temptation is strong to just turn around and come back in an hour when hopefully the worst has blown over. Then I can pick up the pieces and try to mend things with sweet words and not-so-sweet fucking, but I force myself to take those last steps and unlock the door.

I don't see them in the living room, but they are loud enough that their voices reach me as they keep shouting at each other.

"How is it possible that you're such an idiot?" Bella accuses Jazz, then interrupts his fleeting attempt at a response. "I mean, you know how he is!

The guy who needed five years and God knows how many pep talks from you to even 'fess up to me that he wanted to fuck me! You can't really expect him to have changed any in the past months!"

Oh great, they're fighting about me. My curiosity piqued, I remain leaning against the entry door, attempting not to make a sound as I strain my ears trying to pick up every word they utter.

Jazz snorts.

"Trust me, it took more like a week and you slinking around in a tiny, white bikini for him to realize that!"

"Glad you're so insightful when it comes to others but not to yourself!" she screams back. "Don't you see that this is not going to just resolve itself? I can see how much you're hurting, and by proxy that's hurting me, too! He won't change, he won't get his head out of his ass, now even less when he's got your cock shoved up there on a regular basis. You need to talk to him!"

"But I can't!" comes the pained yet angry answer.

"Then I will!"

"No! You can't!"

"Says who? You don't really know me if you think I have a problem telling him that -"

"Please don't then! This is my business, not yours. I'm so fed up with you thinking that you're Little Miss Congeniality! You don't know the solution to every fucking problem in the universe!"

That shuts her up, but only for a moment.

"And maybe I'm fucking sick of watching either you or him moping around! I can't remember the last time when we had a whole weekend without any drama or mood swings that we didn't spend fucking from sunup to sundown, and then some!"

"Yeah, maybe that's because the only way you shut up is when you're sucking on someone's cock!"

"You didn't just say that!"

"Yeah, I did, and I can say it again if you don't shut up -"

"You don't get to tell me to shut up! But maybe listening for once in your life would help? But, oh, no, it's so much easier to just wallow in silence and kill everyone else's joy with your brooding, right? The moment he gets home I'm going to tell him. Deal with it!"

Her declaration is underlined by the click of the bedroom door being closed, then opened a moment later as Jazz follows her, both of them coming down the stairs. I know that any second now they will see me, but before I can make up my mind what to do about that, it is too late.

Bella looks furious, as if her tone and words hadn't been a dead giveaway, and all of that rage comes bearing down on me now when she sees me standing just inside the door. Yet instead of getting right in my face she draws it all in, assuming that fragile calm that I've come to fear, as it means that she's totally pissed beyond reason.

"You're late."

The words are precise and bitten off, accusation making her eyes hard and unbidding.

"I am?" I ask lamely, not remembering if we have agreed to me being home after work or not.

"Yes. I called the hospital two hours ago and they told me your shift had ended before noon. And now it's five in the afternoon."

I'm about to make up some excuse, then decide to stick to the truth, but then the meaning of her words hit me.

"You're calling after me? Are you checking up on me or something?"

Try as I might, that comes out as an accusation, and I can see the tension in her rising.

"Do I need to?"

"I didn't think so, but then again I didn't think you would call my work to find out whether I was hiding something from you or not."

She doesn't even look chagrined when she answers.

"I was calling because I wanted to know when you'd be home, to figure out whether or not I should cook something or order take-out and have you pick it up on the way over. Sorry that I'm annoying you so much by trying to be a good girlfriend and providing food for when you come home, starving, as usual, because there are only six supermarkets and ten restaurants in the next three blocks from here!"

Talk about bad timing if there ever was any. My stomach chooses that moment to rumble loudly, and in a bout of insanity I ask, "Well, did you cook?"

"Fuck you!"

As Jazz doesn't join in our 'conversation' I try to defuse it, telling myself that someone has to try to act maturely for once.

"Well, if you need to know, I went over to Alice's."

Bella's eyes narrow upon hearing that.

"You did what?"

"We talked. Just because you start foaming at the mouth whenever someone mentions her doesn't mean I have to break off all contact with her."

For a moment Bella looks as if I had slapped her, and not in a playroom-friendly kind of way, then she rounds on Jazz, screeching as she points her finger at me.

"THIS is exactly what I've been talking about! He'd rather hang out and talk to that fucking cunt instead of either of us! And now he'll have his panties in a twist for weeks because he'll go crawling back to her, begging her to like him again because it's oh, so important to him that she still considers him her friend when she's actually disgusted by him. He'll never get the message! He'll never understand that you -"

"Shut the fuck up," Jazz interrupts her, his voice frighteningly deep and stern. Where screaming hasn't helped, this does, only it just works for him.

Instead of getting in his face she rounds on me, then shoves me in the chest, hard, making me stumble out of her way more from surprise than actual force.

"You're such a fucking asshole!" she shouts at me, then grabs her purse and coat, shoves her shoes on and storms out, slamming the door behind her with a loud bang.

Puzzled by her exit I turn back to Jazz, trying to ask him what that was all about, but find him staring at me with something close to malice on his face.

"You know what, Edward? She's right. You are a fucking asshole."