For the third time in as many months, Raphael Durant stood on a woman’s front yard in just his boxer briefs. He held his shoes and pants in his hands but his shirt was still being brandished by a very angry woman.
Raph liked a laugh as much as the next guy, and this might have been funny… if it didn’t feel like complete déjà vu. Three months ago, Michelle had kicked him out of the house in the middle of the night. Hannah had actually kicked him out of the house in the wee dark hours of the morning. And here was Corinne, kicking him out before they’d even eaten dinner. His shirt caught him full in the face. At least this time the woman who was kicking him to the curb was making sure he left with all his belongings.
“Corinne,” he said, his voice muffled through the fabric of his shirt. He yanked it down and was greeted by the sight of an extremely miffed blonde.
“I don’t want to hear it, Raphael. Whatever excuse you’re going to give me. I’m sure your words will sound nice, they’ll appease me, we’ll end up inside, mauling each other again. But then you’ll leave and I’ll think to myself, what did he actually say? And I won’t have a damn clue. Because you never actually say anything. I ask you a simple question about your family: How many brothers do you have? And you can’t even answer that. You’re completely and entirely closed off. You’re secretive and elusive and —”
“Corinne,” Raph said in frustration. “We just met each other. We’ve only been dating for, like, four weeks. How can you expect me to—”
“Whether or not you have any siblings isn’t exactly a state secret, Raphael!” she roared, and Raph was momentarily stunned at how such a little body could create a booming resonance. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of her neighbors pull back the curtains to watch. “But you won’t tell me anything about your life. Anything. I don’t even know where you live! Are you seeing other girls? Who knows! You could have a secret family for all I know. You could have kids. I could be the other woman and I would have no fucking clue! Because you don’t tell me anything.”
He hated that she was right. He knew that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to her and it wasn’t fair to him. It wasn’t his natural inclination to be secretive. He was naturally gregarious and open and chatty. But how could he possibly explain to her that being close-mouthed was a matter of survival? For himself and his family.
He couldn’t explain that. Not without giving away his secrets. So he just stood there on the lawn, the dewy grass cold under his feet, his clothes in a bundle in his hands, and he watched as all the anger seeped out of pretty Corinne McCray and she simply got sad.
“Corinne, maybe if we gave this thing a little time…” He liked her, he really did. He wasn’t sure if she’d be his wife, but he’d never find out if she didn’t give him more time to get to know one another.
Corinne gave him another sad look with her almond-shaped blue eyes and Raph wished she’d go back to being mad. Those sad eyes were killing him. “You have no idea how much I’m tempted to do that. You’re funny and sexy and a lot of fun, Raphael.”
“Then why don’t we just go back inside and—”
She held up a firm hand. “But I don’t trust you.”
Her words landed like bricks between them. Raphael looked down at the ground as if he could see the indentation those words left behind.
And there it was. The inescapable truth. He didn’t blame her. He hadn’t given her any reason to trust him over these last few weeks. He’d liked her and pursued her and had given her almost nothing but his body every few nights.
She deserved more than that. But he wasn’t capable of giving it. His hands were tied.
“All right,” Raphael said, lifting his eyes to meet hers. “I understand. I… I’m gonna go.”
She nodded, looking like she wanted to stop him, but saying nothing.
He turned on his heel and was just tossing his clothes into his car and toeing into his sneakers when he felt her cool hand on his elbow.
There weren’t tears in her eyes and Raphael could have kissed her for it. He couldn’t handle tears. They wrecked him.
“Take care of yourself,” she whispered.
“But not too much care,” she quickly added. “I’m pretty sure you’d be happier if you took a little bit less good care of yourself. Let yourself get a little banged up here and there.”
He chuffed out agreement. If only he could afford to be a little more cavalier with who he let into his life, but it wasn’t just his life at stake here. It was his entire family.
“And Raph?” She was leaning into the window of the car now.
“Yeah?” He started the car.
“A little piece of advice? You’re never going to find love unless you let somebody know you.”
He said nothing.
“And,” she continued, “if you can’t bear to let somebody new in, you better learn to love somebody who already knows you. Otherwise it’s gonna be a long, lonely life for you.”
She tapped the top of his car and turned to walk back up to her house.
“I mean… it doesn’t not look like a wolf, right?” Natalie Chalk asked her sister. Nat had her head cocked to one side, her hands on her hips as she surveyed the royally mediocre painting she’d just spent an hour working on.
Kaya, five years younger, unbelievably gorgeous and always extremely honest, just kind of sucked her lips into her mouth and said nothing.
“Oh, give me a break!” Nat said, laughing good-naturedly at her sister’s prudent lack of response. “It’s not that bad!”
“It…” Kaya started, obviously trying to restrain her laughter. “It’s a painting of a wolf on top of a wedding cake, howling at a bagel and cream cheese?”
Nat burst out laughing. “Oh God. Yeah, it really does look like that. No. The wolf is sitting on a mountain. And he’s obviously howling at the moon. But now that you mention the bagel thing…” She tossed her paintbrush down. “I give up.”
The sisters flopped down on their couch together. “What brought on this sudden foray into the fine arts?” Kaya asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t want to be one of those pathetic, dateless 28-year-olds who stay at home on a Friday night watching Netflix and eating cookie dough.”
“And somehow, in your mind, staying home on a Friday night and making terrible art is less pathetic?”
Nat promptly smothered her cackling, smart-ass sister with a couch cushion.
Kaya shoved her away, laughing and gasping. “If you wanted to go out, all you had to do was ask.”
Kaya and Nat were extremely close, more like best friends than sisters. But they also couldn’t have been more different. Kaya, though younger, was much more self-composed, often quiet, analytical, honest, slightly negative. Whereas Nat was ebullient, optimistic, loud, clumsy, hilarious, always trying something new and failing, a social butterfly.
But now, Nat sighed, tossing the pillow aside. “I don’t want to drag you all over town just because I’m lonely. Besides. It’s not that I’m just dying to hit up the bars and restaurants we’ve been to a hundred times before…”
“It’s that you wish Paul would get off his ass and call you so that you could go to those bars and restaurants with him.”
Kaya’s tone was unoffended and matter-of-fact, but Nat still winced when she heard the words. “It’s not that I don’t want to hang out with you, Kay.”
“I get it, Nat. You have feelings for a guy who just won’t play ball with you.” Kaya pushed her head back into the couch cushions. “I just really don’t understand this guy.”
“Me neither,” said a deep, familiar voice from behind them.
Both sisters craned their heads over the couch to see Raphael standing in their front doorway, swinging his spare set of their house keys on one finger.
“Oh no!” Nat said the second she caught sight of her best friend’s expression. “What happened? Tonight was your big date with Corinne.”
Raphael sighed and kicked their front door closed behind him. “I got the boot.”
“It’s only 8:15,” Kaya noted. “That’s a new record.”
Raphael kicked his shoes off, hopped over the back of the couch and flicked Kaya on the ear. “No need to rub it in.”
This was common banter between Kaya and Raph, but Nat could see that Raph was actually pretty bothered by whatever had gone down between him and Corinne. She sighed. It bugged her that her best friend was always caught up in these situations with women. He was such a good guy. And he really deserved love. But things were… complicated for him. He wasn’t the easiest person to get to know and Nat hadn’t been able to do much more than watch as he’d gotten lonelier and lonelier over the years.
Raph, his head leaned back on a cushion, lazily rolled to look Nat in the eye. “The usual. Women are really good at sensing when you’re hiding something from them. And they always end up assuming that I’m cheating.”
Raphael got around for sure. But he was also the most loyal person she’d ever met in her entire life. The only reason he dated so many women was because it never worked out with them, but while he was with a woman, he wasn’t with other women. Like, ever.
“I’m sorry, Raph. I wish there was a way to explain—”
“What in God’s name is that?” Suddenly Raph was on his feet and striding over to the painting that Nat had been working on just minutes before.
Kaya was already laughing. “Just Nat’s latest hobby.”
It was probably true that Nat’s hobby was looking for hobbies. There was evidence of it all over their apartment. A set of partially woven baskets sat on top of one bookshelf, an unfinished puzzle on the coffee table. There was a cabinet filled with spices she’d purchased and only really used once or twice. A series of semi-good portraits of Kaya and Raphael’s family lined one wall from the few weeks Nat had fancied herself a photographer. In the bathroom, there was a cosmetics aisle’s worth of makeup from last year when she’d been watching too many YouTube tutorials.
So, she liked trying stuff. Was that a crime?
“Nat,” Raphael said as he leaned down to peer at the crappy little painting. “I’m speechless. This is… this is true genius.”
Natalie laughed and dragged a hand down her face. “Right.”
Raphael sat himself on the stool she’d been sitting on and picked up the paintbrush, starting to re-mix the colors she’d been using.
She sighed. She knew exactly how this was going to go. There was nothing that Raph tried that he wasn’t automatically incredible at. When Nat had taught him how to snowboard in high school, he’d been carving down a black diamond two hours later. When she’d taught him how to drive a stick, he hadn’t stalled out her old truck even once. When they’d taken a cooking class together a couple of years ago, he’d literally made the teacher tear up at how good his tiramisu was. On the first try.
He was just a talented person.
Nat rose up from the couch and fished a few beers out from her fridge. She popped the tops and handed one to Raph, who was bent over her painting, and to Kaya, who was fiddling with her phone, slumped on the couch.
“What about you?” Raph asked. “Why aren’t you two out on the town tonight?”
“I didn’t particularly feel like getting stared at by droves of incoherent men,” Kaya said matter-of-factly. She had an almost painful level of beauty that did, in fact, render most men temporarily speechless. She couldn’t have been less interested in their attentions. “But this one here didn’t go out because she was moping around, waiting for he-who-shall-not-be-named to get off his ass and call her.”
“What the hell is Paul’s problem?” Raph muttered, shaking his head as he started to blend new paint over top of what Nat had painted earlier.
“I know! The guy is such a lump,” Kaya agreed emphatically.
“Paul is not a lump,” Natalie insisted, her heart thumping hard at just the thought of him. She couldn’t exactly explain why, but there was something about him that just got her engine revving.
It wasn’t necessarily his looks. Paul was tall and wiry and a just a little bit… beaky. But he had nice hair. In fact, it was pretty much the same dark, glossy hair that Natalie herself had. But that wasn’t why she liked him. She liked him because he was smart and professor-ish. He was serious and thoughtful and organized. She imagined him to be the yin to her yang. In her daydreams, she and Paul were married and Natalie would open up health insurance bills and forget about them, only to discover that Paul had paid and filed them on his own. What a dream that would be. To be partnered with someone who had their shit together.
“Then what the hell is he?” Kaya demanded. “It’s been a year and a half and the guy has barely even kissed you.”
“He’s recently divorced!” Nat defended him. “He’s been very clear that he needs time to heal.”
“Nat,” Kaya argued, “that was true a year and a half ago. But the man has been divorced for two years. And he and his wife were separated for a year before that. I mean, how much time does this guy need to get you into bed?”
“Amen,” Raphael agreed. The one thing that Raphael wasn’t particularly good at was delayed gratification. And he’d been extremely clear over the last year and a half that watching Natalie glacially pursue Paul was like nails on a chalkboard for him. “Seriously, Nat. We wouldn’t need to be having this conversation if you’d taken my advice already.”
“Oh my gawd. Can we not go there again? Please?” Nat groaned and covered her own face with the couch cushion.
“What advice?” Kaya asked, looking back and forth between Nat and Raph.
“Raph thinks that I should show up at his door in nothing but a trench coat. You know, red high heels and a riding crop or something equally cringey.”
“It wouldn’t be cringey!” he insisted. “It would be hot as shit and I didn’t say you had to be naked. You can wear panties. And, like, maybe one of those bras that are see-through.”
“That’s brilliant!” Kaya said, sitting up straight.
“Oh, not you, too,” Nat grumbled, slumping down.
“Come on, Nat. There’s like zero percent chance he’d say no to that. Even if he’s still getting over his wife, that doesn’t mean the guy’s signed a chastity agreement or something. And if he turned you away—as highly unlikely as that might be—then at least you’d know for sure that he wasn’t into it and you could start moving on.”
Nat frowned at her sister. “Oh, come on. Everyone in this room knows that I do not have the sexual charisma to pull something like that off.”
Raph scoffed and whirled on the stool so that he was facing her. “Please. This is from the girl who seduced Shep Williams on the Ferris wheel at the county fair our senior year of high school.”
Nat’s eyes unfocused as she looked into her past and remembered that particular moment of glory. She refocused to find Kaya snapping fingers in Nat’s face and saying, “Nat-a-lie, come back to us.”
Nat shook her head. “Fine, so maybe I used to be a bad-ass. But those days are gone. Paul, that sexy bastard, has totally stolen my mojo.”
She slumped even further down into the couch.
“Nat, I hate to tell you to give up on your dreams here, but I think there’s a good chance you just need to get laid. Forget about Paul for a little while and get back on Tinder. If he comes around, he comes around.”
“Raph, your answer to everything is to get on Tinder.”
“No!” he defended himself. “I’ve never told Kaya to get on Tinder to fix her, um, situation. I steered clear of that with a ten-foot pole.” Perhaps sensing he’d stumbled into a minefield, he whirled back around and continued to paint on the canvas.
Kaya sucked her teeth. “First of all, you don’t steer with a ten-foot pole. You’re mixing metaphors. And second of all, I wish you would give me some practical advice on my issue. You totally treat me with kid gloves!”
“Kaya,” Raphael said in exasperation, “I have no advice for you on how to lose your virginity, okay? Other than don’t give it up to some Tinder douche. Beyond that, I’m fresh out of ideas.”
Natalie, who was well aware of the state of her sister’s sexual experience, tipped her head to one side. “Why are you asking Raphael for advice on how to lose your virginity?”
Kaya shrugged. “He’s had more sex than anyone else I know. I figured he’d have some practical tips for how to get the deed done.”
Raph swirled back around on the stool, not bothering to stop himself when he was facing them, just letting himself twirl and twirl. “I may have had a lot of sex, but I—like every other non-virgin on this planet—only lost my virginity once.”
“And as I recall,” Nat said, “there was very little planning or strategy involved. It just kind of happened.”
Raphael nodded back at her. “Same as you. Basement sex with a fellow classmate. Left her house and immediately called Nat to tell her about it. Which is exactly the same thing she did when she lost her virginity.”
“Well, I hate to tell you two that the opportunity for unexpected basement sex with a fellow high-schooler has passed for me. I’m twenty-three and starting to feel like a freak for never having done it.”
“Kaya, you have to date if you want to meet someone to have sex with.”
Kaya made a face at Nat, as if the idea of dating repulsed her.
“What a bunch of sad sacks we are,” Nat said, looking around at the two people in the world she was closest to. “All three of us are lonely losers who can’t figure out how to date to save our lives.”
“That may be true,” Raph said. “But two of us lonely losers have also jointly created a stunning visual masterpiece.”
He held out the newly altered canvas for the sisters to see and Nat burst out laughing. With a flawless, steady hand, Raphael had fully transformed the ‘mountain’ under the wolf into a three-tiered wedding cake. He’d also turned the bagel moon into an everything bagel moon, and added quite a bit of depth and detail to the cream cheese. Also, the wolf now had a goatee and an extremely uneven necktie.
Kaya laughed, but shook her head. “You two are such nerds. Sometimes I swear you have the same brain.” She stood, stretched, and headed toward her room. “I’m gonna read for a while and hit the sack. Love you.”
“Love you!” Nat and Raph chorused in unison.
Raphael came to sit next to Nat on the couch. “How bad was the break-up?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Honestly, not that bad. I’m just getting sick of it, is all. I can’t tell someone my secret unless I know them really well first, and they don’t stick around to get to know me once they sense I’m keeping a secret. It’s a catch-22.”
“A really lonely catch-22.”
Nat squeezed his elbow. They sat together in companionable silence for a little while.
“Maybe you should take a break from dating.”
He rolled his head to look at her in that lazy way of his that had become so familiar over the years. “Doesn’t that work against the goal of finding someone I could build a life with? Somebody I could love?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I think you’re right that women pull away from you when they realize that you’re keeping secrets. But friends don’t really break up with each other for that kind of thing, you know? Maybe you could become friends with a woman and really get to know her that way. And then by the time you start dating, you’ll probably know whether or not it’s safe for you to tell her… everything.”
Raph eyed Nat for a while. “That actually makes a lot of sense.” His brow furrowed. “A female friend. How the hell do I make a female friend?”
Nat laughed, kicking him lightly as she curled up on her side, getting more comfortable. “What would you call me, you doofus?”
He rolled his eyes. “You don’t count. We’ve been best friends since, like, second grade. I doubt I’m gonna be able to become friends with an adult woman because of a monkey bars incident.”
Nat and Raph had become best friends one day over twenty years ago. They were in the same grade but had never been in the same class. The two of them were both playing on the monkey bars one recess when Raph had swung too far, knocked into Nat and brought them both to the ground in a very painful pile. It had ended up being his wrist that had gotten broken.
Nat had stayed with him while other kids ran for help from the teachers. Barely a day had passed since that they hadn’t talked.
“I don’t know, aren’t there girls in your soccer league you could be friends with?”
Raph tipped his head to one side. “Friends? Sure. Friends-to-eventual-wife? Doubtful.”
“Well. Just something to consider, I guess.”
“Think you’ll ever get tired of hearing about my problems?”
She laughed. “Think you’ll ever get tired of hearing about mine?”
He scoffed. “No.”
“There’s your answer.”