"I was just kidding around," Ronnie said, but the tone in her voice said she didn't believe it either.
I looked at her. "How would you feel if I said stuff like that to Louie?"
"You can't call him a stripper, or an ex-prostitute, because he's not." The moment she said it, her face showed me she knew she shouldn't have. "I didn't mean..." she began, but it wasn't me that put her in her place, it was Nathaniel.
"I know why you call me names," he said, and he moved in closer, not touching, but invading the hell out of her personal space. "I see the way you watch me. You want me, but not like Anita does. You just want me for a night, or a weekend, or a month, then you'd be done like you're always done with everybody. I know why you don't want to commit to Louie." I'd never seen him like this, relentless. I actually made a small move, as if I'd stop him, but Micah caught my eye, and shook his head. His face was serious, almost grim. I guess he was right. Nathaniel had earned this, and Ronnie had, too. But it wasn't going to end anywhere I wanted to be.
He said again, "I know why you don't want to commit to Louie."
She said in a small, weak voice, "Why?"
"Because it torments you to know that you will never know how I am in bed."
"Oh," she said in a voice that was almost her own, "so I'm not wanting Louie because you're such a stud?"
"Not me, Ronnie, but the next me. The next guy you get obsessed about. Not love obsessed, but I-wonder-what-he'd-be-like-in-bed obsessed. And you've always been beautiful enough, hot enough, to get anyone you've ever wanted, right?"
She stared at him as if he were something horrible. He prompted her, "Right?"
She nodded, and whispered, "Yes."
"You knew Anita wasn't f**king me, so you thought if she didn't want me maybe it would be okay, but I didn't pick up on any of it. I ignored the hints, so you started to get mean about it. Maybe you didn't even know why you were doing it." He leaned in so close that she moved back until her butt hit the cabinet, and she had nowhere else to go. "You kept belittling me in front of Anita, and worse behind her back, as if you'd convince her she didn't want to keep me. That I wasn't good enough to keep. Real enough to keep. Have you ever set your sights on anyone and not f**ked them, at least once?"
She gave a little trembling shake of her head. She was biting her lower lip, and tears gleamed unshed in her eyes.
"Then suddenly, Anita is going to keep me, and you don't poach your friends' guys. That is a rule. You thought I was just food, and you could have me, at least once. Suddenly I'm a boyfriend, and it's against your rules to try for me, but you still wanted me. Just once. Just once to feel me inside you..."
I called it then. "Enough, Nathaniel, enough." My voice was shaky. This had gotten so ugly, so fast. How had I missed it?
Nathaniel moved back from her slowly, and said, "I used to believe in women like you, Ronnie. I used to think that anyone who wanted me that badly must love me, at least a little." He shook his head. "But people like you don't love anyone, not even themselves."
"Nathaniel," Micah said, as if he'd been shocked by that one, too.
Nathaniel ignored him. "You need to find out what you're running from, Ronnie, before it ruins the best thing you've ever found."
She spoke in a harsh whisper, "You mean Louie."
He nodded. "Yeah, I mean Louie. He loves you. He really, truly loves you, not just for a night, or a month, but for years. Part of you wants that or you wouldn't still be with him."
She swallowed hard enough that it sounded like it hurt. "I'm scared."
He nodded, again. "What if you love him? What if you give him your whole heart and then he dumps you the way you dumped so many others?"
She gave that trembling nod of hers again. "Yes."
"You need help, Ronnie, professional help. I can recommend someone."
I knew Nathaniel saw a therapist, but I'd never heard him talk about it with anyone before, not like this.
"I've been with her for a few years. She's good. She's helped me a lot." His face was gentler than it had been.
Ronnie looked at him as if he were the snake and she were the helpless little bird.
He went to the corkboard above the phone. There were business cards pinned to it; important numbers, notes. He took one of the cards down. He walked back over to Ronnie and held it out to her. "If she can't take you, she'll know someone good who can."
Ronnie took the card carefully, just by the corner as if she were afraid it would bite. She gave him wide, frightened eyes, but she put the card in her jeans pocket. She let out a deep breath, and turned to me. "I'm sorry, Anita. I'm sorry about everything." She looked at Nathaniel, then back at me. "And now I'm going to leave the mess behind and let you guys clean it up like I've always done. I am sorry." And she walked out. We all waited until we heard the door close behind her.
The three of us stood for a few seconds in silence, waiting for the shock waves to settle. But of course there were other problems than just Ronnie's issues.
Micah turned to me, and said, "Are we in a mess?"
"I'm not sure yet," I said.
"But you think you're pregnant?" he said.
I nodded. "I missed last month. I'd planned on finding out for sure before I told anyone." I sighed and crossed my arms under my br**sts. "I haven't bought a pregnancy test, because I wasn't sure how to take it without one of you finding out."
Nathaniel came to stand beside me, but to one side so he wouldn't block my view of Micah. "Anita, you shouldn't have to go through this alone. At least one of us should be holding your hand while you wait for the little strip to turn colors."
I looked up at him. "You sound like you've done this before."
"Once; she wasn't sure it was mine, but I was the only friend she had to hold her hand."
"I thought I was your first girlfriend."
"She found out I'd never been with a girl, so she took care of it." His voice made it seem utterly matter-of-fact. "I wasn't very good at it, but she came up pregnant. It was probably one of her customers, but it could have been mine."
"Customers?" Micah made it a question.
"She was in the game, like I was then."
I knew "the game" meant she'd been a prostitute, but "the game" usually meant when he was on the street. He'd been off the street by sixteen. "How old were you?" I asked.
"Thirteen," he said.
The look on my face made him laugh. "Anita, I'd never been with a girl, but I'd seen a lot of men. She thought I should know what it's like to be with a girl. She was my friend, protected me sometimes, when she could."
"How old was she?" Micah asked.
"Jesus," I said.
He smiled, that gentle, almost condescending smile that always let me know what a sheltered life I'd led.
"And she got pregnant," Micah said, softly.
Nathaniel nodded. "The odds were that it wasn't mine. We had sex twice. Once so I could see if I liked it. The second time so I could get better at it." His face softened in a way I'd never seen before.
"You loved her," I said, voice as gentle as I could make it.
He nodded. "My first crush."
"What was her name?" Micah asked.
"Jeanie, her name was Jeanie."
I almost didn't ask, but it was the most he'd ever talked about that part of his life, so I asked. "What happened?"
"I held her hand while the test turned positive. Her pimp paid for an abortion. I went with her. Me, and another girl." He shrugged, and the soft light faded in his eyes. "She couldn't have kept it. I knew that. We all knew it." He looked suddenly sad, lost.
I wanted to take that lost look out of his eyes, so I hugged him, and he let me, and he hugged me back.
"What happened to Jeanie?" Micah asked.
He stiffened in my arms, and I knew then it would not be a good answer. "She died. She got into the wrong car one night, and the date killed her."
I hugged him tighter. "I am so sorry, Nathaniel."
He hugged me, one fierce, tight hug, then he moved back enough to see my face. "I was thirteen and she was fifteen. We were street hookers. We were both drug addicts. There wasn't going to be a baby." His eyes were so serious. "I'm twenty, and you're twenty-seven. We both have good jobs, money, a house. I've been clean for three, almost four years."