As usual, I’m still drafting plans at three in the afternoon on a Saturday when my phone dings. Byron Falcon, the screen announces. I sigh. Even Saturday, I-have-no-life work gets interrupted for almost no one — almost.
Byron’s one of the almosts. I can count them on one hand.
Time to talk or we can do it over the phone if you want, says Byron.
no come over but the house is a wreck. as usual.
don’t care Kit u know that be over in thirty?
I sigh, shut my desk, and head to my bedroom to change out of my pajamas. I’ve been working since early morning. Not that Byron would care; we’ve known each other for a decade and a half now, since our sophomore year at Princeton: we met by chance when we recognized each other’s Savannah accents. But even though he’s just Byron, I corral my straight red hair into a messy bun, throw on some minimalist makeup, and shimmy into actual clothes, with an actual bra. I know if Byron wants to talk, he needs to unload something, probably serious. He’s always come to me to talk, once we got over the “oh god we dated for like, three weeks” thing. After Princeton, we both went down to Carolina: him for law school at USC, me for the architecture at Liston. Drifted back to Savannah.
We stayed close. He has his own life; I have mine. But when something serious happens, we always call.
I just finish throwing on a tank top when Byron walks into the house. He never knocks, and the dogs know him well enough that they don’t bark.
“You scared me,” I tell him. “I thought you were the washer making weird-ass noises again.”
“Just me.” He flops on my battered couch and runs his fingers through his already fucked-up dark hair. During our three-week tenure as boyfriend and girlfriend, I called him Harry Potter, even though he stands too tall, too long-limbed for the comparison.
“Get you a drink?” I ask. It’s serious; if the text hadn’t told me, I’d know by the line on his brow. Byron hides pretty much everything from everyone else. We’ll need alcohol for this.
“What’re my options?”
“Cheap beer and some decent red and shots.”
“Shots then decent red,” he says, like I knew he would. Byron’s such a wine snob.
I pour in the other room when I ask. Easier that way, when we don’t look each other in the face. “You leaving her or she leaving you?”
“She left me,” Byron says. “But I wanted her to go.”
I hand him a shot of vodka and a glass. “For good this time, then? For real?”
“Yeah. She wanted out. She’s serious.” We both down the vodka.
“I’ve wanted you to end this thing for years, Byron.” I sit on the other couch.
“You never told me that.”
“Well, what the fuck do you say, you know? I think you should divorce your wife because she’s a crazy bitch who treats you like shit? You can’t exactly say that to someone, no matter how good friends you are.”
We drink in silence for a while. I love this about Byron: the silence. Everyone else I know, every other friend I have: silence becomes a squirming discomfort after a few seconds. Byron and I can sit in it for minutes at a time.
“This is going to be shitty,” Byron says eventually.
“Yeah,” I agree.
“I don’t even want to get into what precipitated it,” he says. “It’s just that at some point you realize you’re living in two different realities, and one of you is fucking crazy. I don’t fucking know. She doesn’t tell me much of anything. We just drifted, you know? Separate interests. Separate lives.” He downs the rest of his glass. I wordlessly refill it — knew enough to bring the bottle out.
“That sucks.” My Weimaraner Whiskey jumps onto the couch next to me. The muttly little Boston Terrier already sits in Byron’s lap.
“Lots of screaming fights.”
“You work like a goddamn demon, Byron. That’s just how you are. You love being a lawyer. You’ve always loved being a fucking lawyer. You need it. That’s just you. You loved it when we were kids and you love it now and that’s the way it is.”
“Not your fault. What’s that line from Hamilton?”
He laughs. “Catherine Jasper, I don’t fucking know Hamilton.”
“You need it to survive. And I’m not talking as your friend, I’m talking as your ex.”
“Okay,” Byron says. “On that subject. Since you brought it up.” I realize that Byron probably arrived mildly buzzed: the shots and the wine haven’t helped. Anxiety meds and alcohol don’t mix, so I’m buzzing myself. “Look. You’re the only like, actual ex I still talk to. So tell me why I made a shitty boyfriend.”
I almost fall off the couch laughing and spill my wine. “You want to postmortem a relationship lasted like, three weeks or something and ended fifteen years ago?” I get up to retrieve some paper towels. Thank god for hardwoods. “That’s ridiculous, Byron.”
He’s laughing too. “I guess. But. You know. Maybe it’ll help tell me what went wrong, or something.”
“Oh fuck me, Byron, for real? You really want to do this?” I can’t stop laughing. “This is totally absurd. I can’t even remember most of it.”
“I mean, I remember the highlights,” he says. “Like, the important stuff.”
“Okay, fine. You want to know why you were a bad boyfriend?” I ask. “Or, like, a bad boyfriend for me, because I can’t speak for Lucy.”
“Lay it on me,” Byron says.
“You’re not going to like it.”
“I don’t really like, expect to.”
“Fine. You worked all the goddamn time. So you were never around, and you canceled plans all the time, and I got sick of it.”
“And that was when we were just at Princeton, Byron. We were nineteen, for Christ’s sake. You were already working and studying all the damn time. I’d come over and you’d chase me out because you had to work or you had an exam or a paper to write. It pissed me off. You’re thirty-two. You’re at Culliver and Culliver, for god’s sake, one of the best law firms in the damn state, and you still work your ass off. That’s never going to change, honey.” I take another drink of wine. I sort of need it to make it through this. “It’s not bad or good. It’s just who you are.”
“God, that makes total sense.”
“Yeah. Well. It’s just part of you. No sense in trying to change it now. You really sort of can’t. It’s a need you have in a relationship that your partner has to respect. I couldn’t deal with it, and Lucy can’t either.” I pause. “Now would be different. Now I would demand the same kind of time. But then I wanted to be joined at the hip. I think Lucy would happily follow you from room to room.”
“Okay. Why else did I suck?” He pets Dude, my Boston, scratching behind his ears. Byron prefers cats but he loves the dogs. He’ll let her Whiskey crawl all over him, big as he is, without protest. I’ve always appreciated that.
“I don’t know, Byron. God. It was fifteen years ago. We were nineteen.”
“You totally know. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. Like you said, it was fifteen years ago and we were nineteen.”
“Okay, fine. When you weren’t working, you always wanted to hang out with your friends, who were inveterate potheads, and play Mario Kart all day. And you can only play so much fucking Mario Kart.”
“I took you with me to play Mario Kart,” Byron points out. “And totally shared my weed.”
“Yeah, but …” I trail off. “Girlfriends sort of want more than video games and pot and dumbass friends arguing over who gets to be Bowser on this round, and loser on Rainbow Row has to take a shot.”
Byron sort of smiles. “We totally made the loser on Rainbow Row take a shot, didn’t we?” He drinks more wine.
“Thank god I was good at N64 or I’d have been ploughed every time we hung out.” I had grabbed the closest clothes in reach, and those had been very short cutoff jeans. I realize they’re riding fairly high and cuddle under a blanket. Sweet Jesus, Byron doesn’t want to see that.
“We had some good times, though. Remember we used to take those long walks, all through campus, and it would be cold but you’d wear those giant scarves and it’d be snowing, and everything was so quiet? We’d hold hands.”
“That was like, the only time you ever fucking held my hand, Byron. In the history of ever. Another bad boyfriend trait: no PDA allowed. Ever. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you kiss your wife except the day you got married, dude.”
“What the fuck’s up with that?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. Repressed Southern childhood?”
“Repressed everything. You hold everything in until it comes out in a giant rage. No wonder you and Lucy have screaming fights. I bet she pushes your buttons until you explode at her.” I curl deeper under the fuzzy blanket. I know that’s probably exactly what happens. I’ve gone through phases with Lucy. I hated her at first, then liked her, disliked her again, became good friends with her. Mutual loathing set in after she snooped through Byron’s phone and found texts messages from me saying that she needed counseling. Lucy’s always been a little bit jealous, I think, that I’ve known Byron for so long, and that resentment has bubbled up since they’ve had marital issues. Lucy’s also, at times, bitched about Byron to me. He’s lazy. He never does enough. He ignores her and her needs.
I’ve always kept my mouth shut about that. What do you say? Hey, Byron, your wife talked some serious shit on you the other day. Wanna hear it? I know telling him would resurrect old fights, probably summon up new ones. So I always just listened to Lucy, let it ride, lived with the sour feeling that felt something like betrayal.
Watching his marriage had seemed like seeing a slow-motion car crash for about a year now, one of those dream-wrecks where your feet stick to the ground, where you try to yell but no sound comes out. You can only stand back in the pain of bearing witness.
The silence stretches. “Yeah. She finds that button and just slaps it, you know? Like a kid in an elevator. Over and over until I can’t take it anymore.” He hands me the glass. “You should probably cut me off. I have to drive at some point. And rather be somewhat sober if we’re gonna talk about this shit. So why else did I suck?”
I debate over whether or not to tell him. It’s like, the worst thing you can say, but also the truest thing about our relationship, one of the biggest reasons we broke up, and, well, a thing. Like, a big thing. I finally decide, fuck, this is Byron, this was fifteen years ago, what the fuck. I laugh. “Okay, I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” I say. “Like seriously can’t believe it. This is ridiculous. But total honesty. You were the worst lay of my life and I was the worst lay of yours and we both fucking know it. No sense in denying it. The sex was awful, Byron. Straight-out terrible. There’s no reason to dance around it.” I fold my arms and crack up. The sex really had been terrible. Not my fault. Not Byron’s fault. It just didn’t work. Like, total incompatibility.
He sits back and looks aghast. “Wow,” he says. “I’m, uh, wow. I’m sort of offended and I guess I’m sorry, Kit?”
“Oh come on, Byron. We’re both such bottoms. We had to like, flip a coin to see would be on top. It was awful.”
“What?” I laugh. “We did. Don’t you remember? I know once I asked you — oh god, I can’t believe I’m saying this either — I asked you tie me up and you straight refused. I can’t believe I was into that stuff already when we were nineteen. Oh, well. We had the internet.”
Byron keeps staring.
“What?” I finally demand. “I’m sorry, Byron. I shouldn’t have said anything. We’re just always honest, and …” I feel like a total asshole. God, what a horrible thing to say to a person. No matter how well you know them. I hurt Byron’s feelings, and even though he hides it, Byron’s so fucking sensitive. He came over to talk about his impending divorce and now I’ve run off at the mouth and said he sucks in bed. Fuck me. “I’m so sorry,” I say again, without meeting his eyes. Instead I scratch Whiskey, who looks annoyed and hops off the couch in a huff. Thanks a lot, asshole. I cuddle deeper into the blanket.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Byron says. “Is that — is that seriously what you thought?”
“Yeah, you hated being on top,” I say. “You know I hate it. God, I’m such a fucking submissive in bed. And you were just as bad.”
“No,” Byron says slowly. “No. That’s — um, that’s not it at all.” He pushes Dude off his lap. “You read that way wrong, Kit.”
“How the fuck do you read something like that wrong, Byron? Seriously. We were in like, flip a coin territory. I remember us arguing about it.”
“Only because I didn’t want to scare you.” He says it quietly, and he doesn’t look at me.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I remember this so goddamn clearly. Byron didn’t want to top me. No fucking way was I topping him; I hate it. I never know what to do or what to say or how to say it. I even hate being on top during sex. Which topping someone sort of implies. I want told exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. That hopefully progresses much, much further, but having a guy order me around: bare minimum. I knew that when I was nineteen.
“I didn’t want to scare you,” Byron says, and his voice has gained a little more volume.
“The fuck would you scare me?” I ask.
“Well, how the hell do you bring up that you want to tie a girl up and do — I don’t fucking know — what you think then are terrible things to her?” Byron finally blurts. “And you had made some comment — we had just started hanging out — about how this completely normal guy had to be harboring some secret fetish. You said, and I totally remember it, ‘Bet he likes ball gags and rope.’ And I thought, well fuck, there goes that idea.”
I stare. “Byron. I sort of kind of vaguely remember saying that, and it was a joke. I didn’t mean a goddamn thing.”
“I thought you did.”
“I didn’t. It literally had zero to do with my opinion of anything.”
He sighs. “When we were together, I was trying to come to terms with the idea of how sexually aggressive I really was. Because how do you live with that, you know? You’re totally normal but you look at women and you want to do these things to them. Not hurt them, but you get off on like — god, on tying them up, on ordering them around, on all kinds of shit like that. And you think how fucked up you must be for it. So I was afraid I’d get carried away and scare you.”
Now I gape at him. The silence rolls over us, but this time it seems somehow charged. I feel like Byron’s waiting for me to speak, but I have no clue what to say.
“Well, I suppose that has nothing to do with your divorce,” I finally manage.
“No, I guess not,” Byron says.
I throw back the rest of my wine. “Well, fuck,” I say.
“Now I’m pissed off,” I say honestly. Byron and I have long agreed to operate on what we call the Burroughs Principle. Basically: the thing you’re most afraid of saying, the thing you think you should emphatically not say, is exactly what needs to be said.
“Why?” Byron asks.
“Isn’t it fucking obvious? We could have had glorious sex when we were nineteen and we totally fucking wasted it. I would have let you do almost anything to me if you had asked.”
Neither us speak. I could sleep with Byron, I realize suddenly. I could fucking sleep with Byron. I haven’t slept with anyone since I broke up with my last boyfriend six months ago. I don’t have a habit of keeping men around for very long. They get bored with long hours of drafting and my dedication (obsession) to saving Savannah’s old houses. Sleeping with Byron would be a terrible fucking idea, I decide immediately. It could destroy our friendship. He’s one of the best friends I have. God, he’s certainly one of the oldest friends I have. What’s the saying? Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies. Byron wouldn’t just help me move the body. He’d dig the hole, shove it in, and cover it up. You’d don’t risk that kind of thing.
Anyway, Byron came over here to talk about his divorce. And how shitty that impending divorce is, and where his marriage went wrong. And most important: to find assurance that he’s a good person in spite of a failed marriage.
I spend the next half hour giving him those assurances, ignoring the fact that we could, actually, sleep together right now. He could tie me up. He could have me on my knees, order me to do anything and everything. He could send me back to my bedroom, tell me what to wear and how to wear it, tell me what makeup to put on (I think Byron has a thing for red lipstick). I’m getting wet. Fuck. I should kick him out and go to bed with my vibrator. But what would I do then? Think about Byron? That’s fucking ridiculous.
The conversation somehow inevitably wends it way back to us dating. “I can’t believe you thought that,” Byron says. “We’re such good friends. How could we have been laboring under such a fundamental misconception for fifteen fucking years?”
“That’s a little frightening,” I agree. And it is. Because if Byron and I can have such a deep misunderstanding about something so vital, what does that say about the rest of our relationships? What crucial bits of information do we miss, what fundamental knowledge evades us, sidesteps, slips by, causes who knows what damage?
“Now that says something about marriage,” Byron tells me and the universe at large.
“Oh, god, you want to talk about communication?” I ask. “I’m just so fucking mad. I’m sitting here so fucking angry. I can’t shake it. I’m sorry. If I get drunk — I’m so goddamn sorry, Byron.” It’s the thing I should most emphatically not say. The words that make me most uncomfortable. “But if I get drunk I’ll end up propositioning you, and I need you to give me the grace to forget about it in the morning.”
He doesn’t speak. I don’t look to see if he nods, but I assume he does. Byron’s like that, and I don’t doubt that he’ll forgive me if I do something stupid like ask him to fuck me. Beg him to fuck her. Sweet baby Jesus, I need to kick him out. Sooner rather than later.
“I’m about to get a divorce,” he says. “I need help more than I need that.”
“That’s why I’m not propositioning you. That and it would wreck our friendship.” I say this to myself as much as I say it to Byron.
Again, the silence drops down. Byron breaks it. “And sometimes discipline is just as rewarding as pleasure,” he says. But his voice sounds deep, commanding. That voice. The dominant voice that shuts me up, that roots me to the couch, that compels obedience. Goddamn him. Godfuckingdamn him. Now I should kick his ass out.
Five minutes. Five minutes I spend getting wetter. Five minutes he spends staring at the ceiling.
“I can’t believe you,” I finally get ahold of myself enough to snap.
“What?” he asks.
“You know what you just did.”
“What are you talking about?” Byron asks. Like that didn’t just happen. Like he didn’t just purposely play Dom, just for a second, because he knew I’d listen if he did. That bastard. Byron’s never done anything like that before.
I pick up my phone and starts scrolling. Then I don’t have to look at him and if he says a goddamn word about it or tells me to look at him, I’m either going to make him leave or — something. I’m not sure what. But it will definitely be somehow inappropriate in a best friend-type situation. I don’t see anything on the screen. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Vaguely, I think it could be email. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t.” Byron sounds genuinely puzzled. But I resolutely don’t look up.
“You dropped your fucking voice and told me what to do because you knew I’d listen to you if you did. You used exactly what I wanted against me. Dick move.” I keep scrolling. No: Facebook.
Byron doesn’t speak. I take that as confirmation.
He bursts out laughing. It feels like a spell breaking, like coming up for air. “We couldn’t communicate what we wanted when we were nineteen. We’ve been laboring under a fundamental miscommunication for what, a decade and a half? And now we still can’t say what we want.”
The worst thing, I think. The thing you should most emphatically not say. “Did you just proposition me?” I ask. “Because I want you to think long and hard about that, Byron, and I want you to think very hard about what my answer might be.” A yes, Byron. I’ll say yes and then how will you deal with that, motherfucker?
I stand, walk to the kitchen and feed the dogs, take a long time about it. When I can’t stretch it out any longer, I come back to the living room and sit on the couch. Curl up in the blanket. Byron stares at the ceiling again.
“If this were a novel,” he says, “the girl would walk through her house and gets the things she wants tied up with.”
He definitely just propositioned me, but sideways. Typical Byron, playing safe, giving me an out. I could ignore it. I could play dumb, could laugh it off, pretend I didn’t get it. Pretend that yeah, what a joke, because isn’t this just the perfect set-up?
I let myself sit in the moment. How many people get an offer to play with someone they trust completely, with someone they’ve known for so long? How can you possibly say no, especially when you’re single and for all intents and purposes, so is he?
Someone you trust to never hurt you, to always listen, to never cross a line you draw. Someone who knows you through and through.
Someone who’s always been solid ground under your feet.
Almost in a daze, I stand and walks to my bedroom. All my scarves sit in a box on a shelf in the closet. I contemplate which to bring. But the box isn’t large. So I pull it down from the high shelf, walk into the living room, and set it at his feet. I stand and wait. This may be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had.