"I don't love him the way I need to."
"Need to for what, Anita? Need to for your conscience? Your sense of morality? Just give him some of what he needs, Anita. Don't break yourself doing it, but bend a little. That's all I'm asking."
"You said the thing on the dance floor was sort of your fault. You never explained that."
"I told Nathaniel you don't like passive men. You like a little dominance, a little pushiness. Not much, but enough so that you aren't the one that says, Yes, we'll have sex. You need someone to take a little of the responsibility off your shoulders."
I stared at him, studied that young face. "Is that all it is for me, Jason? I just need someone else to help me spread the guilt around so I can f**k?"
He winced. "That isn't what I said."
"Get mad, if you want, but that isn't what I said, or what I meant. Get mad at me, but don't take it out on Nathaniel, okay?"
"I was raised that if you had sex it was a commitment. I still believe that."
"You don't feel committed to me." He said it as if it were just a fact, nothing personal.
"No, we're friends, and I was sort of a friend in need. But you're a grownup, and you understood what it was. I'm not sure Nathaniel is enough of a grown-up to understand that. Hell, he can't even say no to women who are almost strangers."
"He turned down at least three dance offers while we were talking, and I know for a fact that he turned down the beautiful Jessica Arnet for a date."
"He did, really?"
Jason nodded. "Yep."
"I didn't think he'd be able to say no."
"He's been practicing."
"He tells you no sometimes, doesn't he?"
I thought about it. "Sometimes he won't repeat conversations to me, or tell me things. He says I'll get mad at him, and so I should ask the other person."
"You wanted, no, demanded, that Nathaniel be more responsible for himself. You made him get his driver's license. You've forced him to be less dependent, right?"
"But you didn't think what it would mean, did you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You wanted him to be independent, to think for himself, to decide what he wanted out of life, right?"
"Yeah, in fact, I said almost exactly that to him. I wanted him to decide what he wanted to do with his life. I mean he's only twenty for God's sake."
"And what he's decided he wants to do is be with you," Jason said, and his voice was softer, gentle.
"That is not a life decision. I meant like a career choice, maybe go back to college."
"He's got a job, Anita, and he makes better money as a stripper than most college graduates do."
"You can't strip forever," I said.
"And most marriages don't last forever either."
My eyes must have gotten too wide, because he hurried with his next words, "What I mean is that you treat everything like it's a forever question. Like you can't change your mind later. I don't mean to imply that Nathaniel wants you to make an honest man of him. That never came up, honest."
"Well, that's a relief, at least."
"You'll need a pomme de sang for years, Anita. Years."
"Jean-Claude said maybe in a few months I'd be able to feed from a distance, and not need the up close and personal stuff."
"You've made progress on going longer between feedings, Anita. But you haven't made much progress on truly controlling the ardeur."
"I controlled it on the dance floor," I said.
He sighed. "You shut it down on the dance floor. That's not control, not really. It's like you have a gun, and you can lock it in the gun safe, but that doesn't teach you how to shoot it."
"A gun analogy? You've been thinking on this for awhile, haven't you?"
"Ever since Nathaniel told me that you hadn't been allowing him release during the feedings."
"Allow? He didn't ask, and how was I supposed to know he wasn't even doing himself in private? I mean, I didn't tell him not to."
"You can play with yourself, and it feels good, but it doesn't meet the real need."
I pushed my back tight into the tree, as if the solid wood could catch me, because I felt like I was falling. Falling into a chasm so deep that I'd never get out. "I don't know if I can do Nathaniel and still look at myself in the mirror in the morning."
"Why does doing Nathaniel bother you that much?"
"Because he confuses my radar. I have friends, I have boyfriends, I have people who are dependent on me, people I take care of. I do not f**k the people I take care of. It would be like taking advantage of your position."
"And Nathaniel falls into the taking care of category?" he asked.
"You think by ha**ng s*x that you're taking advantage?"
"That's not how Nathaniel sees it."
"I know that, Jason, now." I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the roughness of the bark. "Damn it, I want the ardeur under control so I don't have to keep making these kinds of decisions."
"And if I could wave a magic wand over you and you instantly could control the ardeur, what then? What would you do with Nathaniel?"
"I'd help him find a place of his own."
"He does most of the housework around your place. He buys your groceries. He and Micah do most of the cooking. Nathaniel taking care of the domestic stuff is what allows Micah and you both to work all those hours. Without Nathaniel, how would you organize it?"
"I don't want to keep Nathaniel just to make my life easier. That's like evil."
Jason let out a big sigh. "Are you really this slow, or just driving me crazy on purpose?"
"What?" I said.
He shook his head. "Anita, what I'm trying to say is that Nathaniel doesn't feel used. He feels useful. He doesn't need a girlfriend, because he thinks he already has one. He doesn't want to date, because he's already living with someone. He doesn't need to look for a place of his own, because he already has one. Micah knows that, Nathaniel knows that, the only person who doesn't know that seems to be you."
He stopped me with a raised hand. "Anita, you have two men who live with you. They both love you. They both want you. They both support your career. Between the two of them, they're like your wife. There are people in this world who would kill to have what you have. And you'd just throw it away."
I just looked at him, because I didn't know what to say.
"The only thing that keeps this little domestic arrangement from being perfect for all concerned is that Nathaniel is not getting his needs met." He stepped in close to me, but the look on his face was so serious that it never occurred to me that kissing was coming, because it wasn't. "You've set up the dynamics so that you wear the pants in this trio, and that's fine, it works for Micah and Nathaniel. But here's the hard part about wearing the pants, Anita, it means you get to make the tough decisions. Your life is working better than it's worked since I met you. You've been happier, longer, than I've ever seen you. Micah, I don't know that well, but Nathaniel has never been this happy in all the years I've known him. Everything is working, Anita. Everybody is making it work. Everybody but..."
"Me," I said.
"You," he said.
"You know, Jason, I can't say you're wrong about any of it, but I hate you right this second."
"Hate me, if you want to, but I'm tired of watching people have everything their heart desires and throw it away."
"This isn't what my heart desired," I said.
"Maybe not, but it's what you needed. You needed a wife in that old 1950s sort of way."
"Doesn't everybody," I said.
He grinned at me. "No, some people would like to be the wife, but I just can't find a woman who's man enough to keep me in the style to which I have not yet become accustomed."
It made me smile. Damn it. "You are the only one who can say shit like this to me, and not have me pissed at them for days, or longer. How do you get away with it?"
He planted a quick kiss on my my lips, more brotherly than anything. "I don't know how I get away with it, but if I could bottle it, Jean-Claude would pay a fortune for it."
"Maybe not just Jean-Claude."