Paint fumes were thick in the sun-drenched room, and the clear
wash of cream we were slapping on the walls did little to reflect the
heat. Liza had propped the windows open with empty paint cans and
pieces of wood when we came in to survey the damage, but that only
let in hot July breezes. Andrew was covered in sweat already, his
white t-shirt clinging to his lanky body. Liza and I, also in
cut-offs and t-shirts, weren’t much better off.

We’d let him do most of the heavy lifting involved in clearing
out the apartment. Liza’s father owned the building, and somehow
she’d talked us into helping her make one of the apartments habitable
again. A horde of college guys had trashed the place, leaving beer
cans and mysterious stains everywhere, and then left with the summer.

“Can you pull the stepladder over here, Steph?” Liza asked.
She’d somehow wedged her way up onto a windowsill to paint above it,
and one of us had pulled the ladder away to work on something else.
For a moment I was tempted to leave her crouched up there…but the
thought passed. After all, Andrew would just lift her down.

I dragged over the stepladder and held it steady as she
climbed down, her long, slightly furry legs descending past my
upturned face. Liza nodded her thanks before walking over to where
Andrew was painting large swirly stripes of cream on the battered
wall. She laughed as he stood back to admire his artistry. He
casually reached out and pulled her to him.

“What do you think? Would the Museum of Modern Art give me
five thousand for it?” he asked.

“I think you should get back to work” Liza replied, digging
her fingers into the ticklish spot under his bottommost right rib. He
grabbed her fingers and pulled her hands behind him, laughing. She
smiled up at him and he smiled down at her, and I couldn’t watch
anymore. I headed to the kitchen, calling out behind me, “Anyone
else want something to drink?” They didn’t respond.

As I downed some apple juice straight from the large bottle, I
tried to figure out if there was a graceful way to get out of this
situation and go home. It wasn’t surprising that Andrew would spend
a day of his vacation lugging battered sofas and futons around, since
he’d come out here to visit her in any case, but what I was doing
there was anyone’s guess.

You’d think I’d have more sense than to spend time with those
two. Liza and I had been best friends since second grade, and usually
when I was home from college we spent lots of time together. I
suppose it wasn’t surprising that we were this summer too. But when
Andrew had dumped me in April, I certainly hadn’t expected that he’d
take up with my best friend a month later.

To be fair, I don’t think either of them expected it either.
She came out to visit for a week…and it just sort of happened. Two
lonely people, with at least one thing in common. That week Liza was
there I hardly saw her. I’d catch glimpses of her, huddled in a
shadowy stairwell with him, her arms locked around his neck. Or hear
them talking softly outside my door before she came in to crash on
my floor. There were times when I would have cheerfully, creatively,
killed them both.

I put back the juice and turned back to the hall leading to
the living room. As I trudged down the hall, Liza came towards me.
She said, “I just realized that we need paint for the trim. I’m
going to take the car and run get some. It should take about half
an hour, I think. You don’t mind if I leave you stranded, do you?”

“No, that’s okay,” I replied. “Is Andrew going with you?”

“I told him I expected him to have that room done when I got
back,” she laughed. “Keep an eye on him, all right?”

“Sure, chica,” I said, as she walked past me and out the door.

When I entered the room, I noticed that Andrew’s shirt lay
discarded on the floor near one of the paint trays. His back and arms
were slick with sweat, as he sent long, slow strokes along the edge of
the far wall. I couldn’t help staring, watching the muscles move
under his skin, just wishing, for a second…

“Hey, Steph,” he said, turning to face me. “Do I have to do
this all alone?” His face was red and sweaty, and there was a
distinct bulge at his crotch. I remembered then that Liza was still
a virgin, and wanted to remain one. Perhaps I might have felt
sympathy for him then, if I hadn’t remembered their matching smiles.

Something twisted in me, and I couldn’t help saying, “I think
you could use a little loneliness for a change.” I turned away,
fighting unexpected tears, and picked up a brush and started to
paint, slowly, calmly. Suddenly, Andrew’s arms were around me, his
left hand pressed against the skin at my waist, the right still
holding a paintbrush in front of me. At the contact, the pressure
of his long body against my back, I broke. Tears were suddenly
pouring down my face. Weeks of pent-in frustration burst loose,
and it was all I could do not to slam my paintbrush right through
the newly-painted wall.

He just held me, quietly crooning an incomprehensible
something, calming my shuddering body with the solidness of him. I
calmed down eventually, turning in the circle of his arms to face
him and wipe the tears from my cheeks with paint-daubed hands.

“It’s all right,” I said then. “You can let go now — I’ll
be fine.”

The concern on his face shifted to something else at my words,
and I suddenly caught my breath at what I thought I saw. “What if I
don’t want to let go?” he asked. Before I could answer his mouth was
on mine, his tongue probing gently but with determination. The
paintbrush in his hands dropped to the floor, and I couldn’t help
thinking, “We’ll have to wipe that up” before his hands clenched my
buttocks and pulled me to him.

We fell to the floor then, clothes somehow being unbuttoned
and peeled off, mouths and fingers seeking skin they had barely
touched in months. I buried my face in Andrew’s shoulder, digging
my teeth into his skin. He responded only by raking his fingers
across my back, and I moaned, arching underneath him.

I barely noticed him scrounging around on the floor until he
found his shorts, pulling a condom out of the pocket. His mouth was
fastened to my breast as if he would never let go. He did,
eventually, but only to slide up my slick body and into me, in a
smooth remembered motion. The paint fumes grew stronger then, or I
grew dizzy. We moved against the sanded wood floor, limbs locked,
hearts racing. When I came, I came screaming. When he came, he was
silent, as always.

We lay there naked for a while. My eyes were closed, and for
a moment, with the weight of his body against me, I almost wanted to
forget… The sweat on my back finally began to itch, and reaching
back to scratch it, I found my fingers covered in paint. I let go of
him and rolled away (he had already released me), turning to look
beneath where I’d lain. Somewhere along the line we’d knocked over
a paint tray, and the spreading pool had thoroughly coated my back
and neck.

I swore and jumped up, grabbing for a rag to wipe up the mess.
He sat up as well, watching silently as I knelt and mopped up the
sticky paint. “Need help?” he finally offered, just as I was
finishing. “No,” I replied. “I think you’ve done enough.”

He looked hurt at that, an injured puppy. “You were hardly
fighting me,” he pointed out.

“I know,” I replied, as I pulled my clothes back on. A mess
of emotions was roiling my stomach. “That’s part of the problem.” It
was then that we heard the car pulling up. Looking out, I saw Liza
stepping out, lugging two cans of paint. “It’s Liza,” I said.
“You’d better get dressed.”

I walked down the hall, leaving him naked behind me,
frantically grabbing up clothes. I met her on the stairway.

“Could you give me a ride home, chica? I’m not feeling very
well. Sorry to disappear on you…” I asked her.

“Sure,” she replied. “Got a headache?” Her perceptive eyes
glanced over me, noting the paint smeared on my body, the tears in my
eyes. When she got upstairs, she would doubtless notice the light
cream color of the floor, the walls that were no more painted than
when she left. She, of course, wouldn’t say anything.

“Something like that,” I replied. She turned and walked down
the stairs. I followed a few steps behind.

M.A. Mohanraj