'Absolutely not,' Jane said.
Charlie blinked. 'Oh.'
'I mean, you're a really nice guy, but I just don't think of you that way.' Jane tucked a lustrous blonde curl behind her ear. 'I'm sorry.'
'Sure.' Charlie stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans. 'I understand. It was just a thought.'
Just a thought, circling around his brain every day for the three years. He had met Jane in high school and was immediately hypnotised by her vivid blue eyes and her pearly skin. He had loved her quick, precise wit, and whenever he successfully made her laugh, he had loved the way she was carelessly loud. She was the only person he knew, besides himself, who still read the news in paper form.
Since they started university, he had developed a fascination with what lay under Jane's loose, soft clothes. Even when she wasn't in his class, even when it was a subject he actually liked, he found himself tuning out. He would imagine showering with her, lathering her skin with slippery foam, cupping her rounded buttocks or sucking on her full, heavy breasts – and then a rattle in the air conditioner or a sniggering classmate would wake him up, and he would realise he had no clue what the lecturer was talking about.
Now she had turned him down. He had worked his way up from stranger to acquaintance, from acquaintance to close friend – but from now on, he would just be another name on her long list of rejected suitors.
Charlie crossed his arms over his grey T-shirt, trying to look like the ground wasn't collapsing beneath his sneakers.
Jane glanced at the glittering watch on her wrist. 'I have to get to class. I'm sorry.'
She half turned away, and then turned back. X-rayed him with those beautiful eyes. 'Are you going to be okay?'
Charlie forced a smile. 'Of course. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.'
She laughed, too loud. A few students, sprawled on the grass in the distance, turned to look. Charlie's face became hot.
Jane hugged him. He felt her breasts crush against his chest. A faint floral perfume filled his nose. Then she pecked him on the cheek, let go, and jogged away across the campus lawns. The imprint of her lips faded from his face like a burn.
He stood there for a moment, still as a fallen tree trunk. A tall, muscular youth named Dan walked past him, strolled across the grass and flopped down next to Nina, a lithe, barefooted brunette. She squeezed his hand, leaned over and kissed him.
Charlie looked away. How did everyone else make life look so easy?
His next lecture was twenty minutes away. The theatre would be empty and quiet. He took a deep breath, pushed it out again, and trudged away toward the building.
It was uncomfortably warm inside. Charlie shrugged off his jacket as he climbed the steps toward the back row. He chose a seat near the middle and draped the jacket over the chair to his left, so no-one would be tempted to sit next to him. Then he leaned back and shut his eyes.
He couldn't sleep – he had never been able to doze off while sitting upright – but he soon found himself in a peaceful, thoughtless trance. It was the next best thing to non-existence.
Fifteen minutes later his chair rattled under him as someone sat down. He opened his eyes. Nina was sitting next to his jacket and digging a notepad out of her bag. She had changed her clothes since he saw her on the grass – she wore a green satin skirt and a tank top which hugged her small, perky breasts. Her lips shone under a fresh coat of gloss.
'Didn't mean to wake you,' she whispered.
Charlie waved a hand dismissively. He knew Nina, sort of – she was the resident adviser for his floor at the block of dorm rooms, so he had seen her from time to time. Looking around, he saw that the lecturer hadn't yet arrived. A few students loitered in the other rows, but not many. He wondered why she had chosen a seat so close to the back. Perhaps she, like him, planned to spend the lesson thinking rather than listening.
Nina slipped a hair-tie off her wrist and pulled her smooth black hair into a ponytail. 'I missed the last lesson. Did she cover Harrison vs. Keene yet?'
'Sorry.' Charlie stretched in his chair. 'I missed it too.'
Nina laughed. 'I wonder if anyone at all was here.'
'She would have given the lecture either way. She's a pro.'
'Her glasses are pretty thick. She might not even have noticed that the room was empty.'
Charlie smiled as the lecturer hobbled in, clutching a sheaf of papers and a laser pointer.
'I can imagine doing that,' Charlie admitted. 'Giving a speech to an empty room. I can't see a thing without my contacts.'
'You did a minor in computer science last year, right?'
'Right.' Charlie was suprised. He hadn't thought Nina knew him so well.
'Someone posted a photo of the class online. You were the only one without glasses.' Nina grinned, showing perfect white teeth. 'Now I know your dirty little secret.'
'Damn. I'll never live that down.'
'Please be seated,' the lecturer called. The remaining students shuffled toward their chairs.
'Are you busy tomorrow night?' Nina whispered.
Charlie had kept his whole week free, expecting Jane to say yes. Even though she hadn't, he remained fixated on her. If Nina was inviting him on a date, it wouldn't be fair to accept. But wasn't she with Dan?
'Are you asking me out on a date?' he asked.
She shook her head vigorously. 'I have a boyfriend.'
Nina blushed. By the time realised she thought he had said "Damn," it was too late to correct her.
'So,' she said. 'Tomorrow night. What are you doing?'
'Do you think you can spare an hour? I kind of need a hand with something.'
'Sure,' Charlie said. 'What can I do for you?'
'Today we'll be covering Harrison vs. Keene,' the lecturer announced.
'I'll message you,' Nina whispered.
Charlie nodded. He turned to face the lecturer, and thought about Jane. Her eyes, her hair, her mouth. His ribs seemed to be shrinking around his heart.
The laundry basket was empty, and the sheets on the narrow bed were freshly washed. All the takeaway bags had been found, scrunched up and thrown into the bin, which had been tipped into the hopper downstairs. The carpet was vaccuumed, the papers neatly stacked atop the scratched wooden desk. Charlie had wanted the room to look its best for when Jane next came over. Now she wasn't coming, and he had nothing to do.
Almost nothing. He glared at the pile of textbooks on the shelf. What was worse, moping or studying?
There was a third option. He opened his laptop and checked his email, wondering if his parents had found the time to write anything to him. They hadn't, but he could hardly blame them, since he hadn't written anything either. He clicked over to a social network, and then another, looking for interesting posts. There wasn't much worth reading. Most of his friends seemed to have become obsessed with two hobbies – drinking, and taking pictures of themselves drinking.
A few had been photographed hugging, dancing, kissing. Charlie felt a pang in his chest and he closed down the window.
A few minutes later he was at a porn aggregator, typing keywords into a search field. Blonde. Busty. He found some photographs of a nude woman lounging on a sunbed by a swimming pool, tugging at an engorged nipple with one hand, rubbing at the shaved cleft between her legs with the other.
Charlie felt a stirring in his underwear, but the woman didn't look enough like Jane. She was too skinny, and her eyes were brown. He went to a video site and searched for curvy blondes.
He found a film of a full-figured woman wearing only high heels and a thong, kneeling on a tiled floor in front of a man. Only the man's legs and his swollen, veiny penis were visible.
The woman wrapped her long, delicate fingers around the man's thick member. 'Oh my God,' she breathed. 'It's so big.'
Charlie knew how cheesy it was, but the woman looked a little like Jane, except for the acrylic nails and the American accent. It was enough to make his dick throb inside his jeans. He unzipped and began stroking idly at it as the woman on the screen cooed and moaned and suckled on the tip of the cock in her hand.
It was a short video. Soon the onscreen penis was spurting thick ropes of come onto the porn star's heaving breasts, but Charlie was still sitting there with a half-hard dick in his grip.
Consumed with self-loathing, he clicked through to an adult videogame – a dating simulator in which he was supposed to talk a virtual blonde into stripping for him and revealing her implausible figure.
The game gave him choices for the dialogue. The cartoon woman was sitting at a bar, and he was allowed to say, "Can I buy you a drink?" or "Want to come to my place?"
He chose the latter, was rejected, and had to restart the game. After choosing the right answer, he was given a selection of drinks to buy her. He chose a gin and tonic, was rejected, and had to restart the game.
It should have been frustrating, but Charlie couldn't help wishing that real life was more like this. That he could hit the reset button, jump back a few years and this time say all the right things to Jane, so she was just as in love with him as he was with her.
Soon the virtual blonde was bouncing on a cartoon hard-on, beads of sweat drawn on her brow, giant tits swaying grotesquely. Charlie watched, jerking his fist up and down his cock until he was ready to burst, and then he ran into the tiny bathroom and squirted his load into the toilet.
When he came back after washing his hands – and staring disgustedly at his reflection for a while – a message from Nina was waiting for him on one of the social networks.
Can I come to your dorm room tomorrow night? she had asked. About 7? I'll bring pizza.
He wrote back. Sure. See you then.
'You sure you're okay?' Henry asked.
Apparently Jane had sent him a message immediately after rejecting Charlie. Hey, Charlie looked a bit down this morning. Could you check on him tonight?
Charlie knew she meant well, but he hated having to lie to his best friend, and if she hadn't said anything, Henry would have remained completely oblivious.
Charlie clenched his fists in his pocket. 'Yes, I'm sure. Relax.'
'Because you know you can talk to me, if–'
'Yeah, of course.' Charlie patted Henry on the shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring way. 'I was feeling a bit crook yesterday morning, but I'm fine now. You know Jane, she just likes mothering me.'
'Okay, okay. I just wanted to check.'
'I appreciate that. Believe me, if I need anything, you'll be the first to know. You still owe me a favour.'
Henry's eyes narrowed. 'For what?'
Henry had spent his gap year in Seramban. He'd met a local woman and fallen in love. The feelings appeared to be mutual, but after he loaned her some money to fix her car, he never saw her again. Left without enough cash for a flight home, he would have been forced to call his parents and have the most humiliating conversation of his life. But when he emailed Charlie and asked how best to break it to them, Charlie transferred the required amount into his account. Henry made it home safely without embarassment, although they both had to live off instant noodles for a while.
'Oh, yeah,' Henry said. 'That.'
'You can repay me right now, if you want.'
'Uh, I don't quite have enough yet, but–'
'Not with money. All you need to do is tell Jane that I'm doing fine. In fact, better than fine. I look "like a tremendous weight has been lifted off my shoulders". Got that?'
Henry frowned. 'Why am I telling her that?'
'Because I am fine, but she won't believe that if she hears it from me.' Charlie looked at his watch. 'I've got to get back to my room. I'm expecting someone.'
'Tell you all about it tomorrow.'
Charlie jogged back to the dorm, leaving Henry staring bemusedly after him.
When he got back to his room, he got a couple of plates out of the cupboard, along with napkins, knives and forks. He didn't have a table to eat at, so he threw a pair of cushions onto the floor as makeshift chairs. But maybe Nina would want to take the pizza somewhere nicer? Whatever. That was fine with him.
He sat down on the bed. Then it occured to him that she might be bringing Dan. She hadn't specifically said it would be just the two of them. So he got out an extra plate and put down an extra cushion. He was just looking for a third fork when there was a knock at the door.
He opened it. 'Hi, Nina.'
Nina wore ballet flats, skinny jeans and a loose fitting cardigan. Her hair was wound into a bun, and a pair of gleaming ear rings dangled beneath her lobes. Charlie wondered if she was going somewhere after this.
She was holding two pizza boxes. 'I have a delivery here for a Mr...'
Charlie chuckled. 'How much do I owe you?'
She beamed. 'Nothing at all. Hope you like Hawaiian.'
'Ooh, risky. Hot pineapple is very controversial. But I enjoy it, so I guess you can come in.'
She entered, looking around the room. 'Wow. You keep your room clean.'
'Nah. You caught me on a good day. Can I get you something to drink?'
'What have you got?'
'Orange juice, soda water, white wine...'
'I'll have a soda water, thanks.'
Charlie poured two glasses and put the bottle back in the fridge. The smell of hot cheese and spices filled the air as Nina opened the boxes.
He handed a glass to Nina. She held it up. 'Cheers.'
He clinked his glass against hers. 'Cheers.'
They sat down on the cushions opposite one another. Only one of the pizzas was Hawaiian – Nina put a slice of the vegetarian on her plate. She ignored the knife and fork, cupping it in her hands, munching on the dough and licking her greasy fingers.
'God, that's so much better,' she said. 'I had a friend's paintball party this morning, and lunch was supposed to be included – and it was, but it was so small. I got half an egg salad sandwich and some crisps and that was it.'
'You know, chips. I like to say crisps just to avoid confusion over whether they were hot or cold.'
Charlie bit into a slice of the vegetarian pizza. Swallowed. 'Crisp confusion. Can't have that.'
'I know it makes me sound British, but I also say flashlight instead of torch–'
'So no-one thinks you mean "burning stick".'
'Exactly. So I think the American English balances out the UK English.'
'What do you say when you want to sound Australian?'
'I say, "Get stuffed."'
Charlie laughed. He was keen to hear what she wanted him to do, but she didn't seem eager to be the one to bring it up.
'So,' he said.
'You mentioned that you needed a hand with something.'
Nina nodded, and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. 'Oh, okay. Yeah, I did.'
Charlie waited, but she didn't say anything else. She looked like she was trying to work out how to break some bad news.
'Is it something personal?' he asked.
Nina laughed, choked, gulped down some soda water.
'It's pretty personal,' she said.
Charlie put down his plate. 'Well, I can keep a secret,' he said. 'As long as it's nothing illegal–'
'Oh, no, nothing like that. I was hoping...' She hesitated. 'What the hell. The short version is this: I want you to have sex with me.'
Charlie laughed nervously. Nina smiled, but she didn't seem to be joking.
'Are you... is this a prank?' Charlie asked.
'Not unless you're going to say no. In which case, yes, I'm totally kidding, and we shall never speak of this again.'
'I thought you said you had a boyfriend.'
'I did. I do. That's kind of the issue.' Nina rubbed her hands together nervously.
'If Dan refuses to have sex with you,' Charlie said, 'there's something very wrong with him.'
Nina's perfect cheeks coloured. 'That's not it. Let me explain. Dan and I, we've haven't made love yet. Now that we've been together a few months, he's keen, and so am I. But I'm a sex virgin, so I'm–'
'A sex virgin.'
'Uh, you can just say "virgin",' Charlie said.
'You don't need to specify that you're a "sex virgin". "Virgin" means "hasn't had sex".'
Nina laughed. 'Just this morning, someone was described as a paintball virgin. So they were equating that–'
'To sex, yeah. So, you were saying...'
'Right. Basically I want the first time to be special. For him, especially.'
'I think that's fairly inevitable.'
Nina folded her legs neatly on the cushion. 'No, I mean really special. I want to totally blow his mind with how amazing the sex is. And I'm not naïve enough to think that I can pull that off on my first try.'
Charlie boggled at her. 'So you want to have–'
'Practice. Yes. I assume sex is like anything else – you get better with experience. Right?'
'Well, yeah. But if you cheat on your boyfriend, won't you feel guilty?'
Nina shook her head. A strand of silky brown hair fell over her face. 'I love him. I will never love anyone but him. I'm doing this entirely for his benefit. Why should I feel guilty about that?'
'What if he found out?'
'That's why I picked you. I never once heard you brag, or gossip, or say a bad word about anyone. It helps that you're single, and attractive, but believe me, I wouldn't even be here if I wasn't one hundred percent sure that this conversation – and anything else we do together – would remain a secret.' She raised her eyebrows. 'It will, won't it?'
'Of course. But...' Charlie couldn't fault her logic, but it just felt wrong. 'But don't you want your first time to be with someone you love, and who loves you?'
'I don't care about my first time. I want our first time to be amazing. Me and Dan's.' She met Charlie's gaze. 'So. Will you help me?'
Charlie didn't know what to say. He barely knew Dan, but didn't want to stab him in the back. And it hardly seemed fair to sleep with Nina while he was infatuated with Jane. On the other hand, Jane wasn't interested in him – nor was Nina, for that matter, but she wanted his help.
And it was help that he wanted to give. He hadn't had sex in a long time, and never with such a beautiful woman. Now that he was wondering what she looked like beneath her clothes, he wasn't sure he could live not knowing.
Nina was looking at him with growing horror. Evidently she had thought this would be an easy sell. His hesitation had thrown her off-balance, and he now saw that a lot of her confidence had been bravado.
'Am I not your type?' She looked down at her small breasts, her narrow hips. 'Do you not find me–'
'It's not that,' Charlie said hurriedly.
'You don't have a girlfriend, do you?'
'No.' Charlie said. But he was thinking of Jane, and the word came out sounding false.
'Oh God, you do.' Nina stood up, aghast. 'I'm so sorry. I can't believe I put you in this position. I should go.'
She ran to the door. Charlie scrambled up and followed her. As she grabbed the doorhandle, he put his hands over hers.
'There's no girlfriend,' he said.
They stood for a moment, searching each others eyes, closer than they had ever been.
'So you'll do it?' Nina said finally.
Charlie nodded, his heart fluttering. 'I'll do it.'
They sat back down on the cushions, the pizza forgotten between them.
'I have three ground rules,' Nina said. 'You might want to think of some as well.'
'No kissing. I've had plenty of practice at that.'
Charlie felt a pang of disappointment, but he supposed the rule made sense.
'No gifts,' Nina added. 'No romance generally. This is not an affair, this is not a relationship – it's just sex, pure and simple.'
Charlie nodded. 'Got it. What's number three?'
'Once we're done – once I've learned all I can from you – we never speak again.'
Charlie gaped at her. 'What?'
'I'm serious. I plan to forget the whole thing, and having you around will just make that more complicated. We won't be friends. We'll just be people who went to the same university for a while.'