Hope

byarzauk©

'You are right. She is straight.' I said to AJ while looking inside my cup of coffee. I couldn't get myself to look at her directly to her face, not after having bragged for a year about my never-failing "gaydar", after having bet my pride in Toni being a lesbian-waiting-to-happen.

She exhaled the slow, blue cloud. 'What happened?'

'Well, I discovered that her idea of bonding with her girlfriends is grabbing their upper arms and pointing at attractive guys. She tried it with me the other day. Guess we're not going to be doing much bonding, no?

AJ laughed briefly in her ever-silent way, and then stared in silence.

'What?'

She shrugged. 'So you're okay with spending three days at the cabin with her'

'Well, it's not like it will be just the two of us, you know...'

'So you still...'

I nodded admission of guilt. 'Can't help it... I don't know what it is with her... I really don't find straight women appealing... Anyway, I guess it'll be good for me to have her around; I'll get bored eventually and forget the whole thing...'

AJ slowly folded the half-smoked cigarette on the ashtray, suffocating the glowing tip, and smiled.

'Good then. Hey, I should go now. Mom is going to kill me; I'm already half an hour late. Are you catching the train or the bus?'

'Train'

We walked down the street in silence. I knew AJ knew I was counting the steps before I reached Toni's flat, just a block away from the train station. I could have taken a detour, but there is a perverse pleasure in strolling under Toni's window, imagining her there, cooking, reading, or listening to the CD I had made for her. She was so close and yet so far... I found myself, once again, slowly walking by like a puppy who sits outside his master's door, waiting to be taken out, to be fed.

* * *

The icy edge of the morning air couldn't shake me awake as I stood on the pavement helping AJ load the skies, snowboard and bags into her 4x4.

Mike arrived, sounding as cheerful as usual; he would have irritated me hadn't he been the impossibly nice guy he was.

Toni arrived a few minutes later, looking as relaxed, self-assured, and aloof as usual. It always puzzled and marvelled me her ability to look always the same: never a puffed up face in the morning, never a worn out face late at night. I felt an almost contradictory mixture of jealousy and desire.

She greeted AJ and Mike and then looked my way.

'Hey there...'

She looked stunning, with a new –shorter- hairstyle that it was held back by her sunglasses. I could have –should have- said something about how good she looked with her new haircut. I loved paying an earned compliment but with Toni it felt different; I felt exposed.

'Hey you...' My voice sounded distant and uninterested, surprising me.

As I leaned over for the customary hello-kiss on the cheek, I saw a few grey hairs exposed by the sunglasses. I must be getting old, I thought. It felt like yesterday when I equated grey hairs to old people, like people in their mid-thirties. But that was my age now -our age-, and I found them sexy.

AJ was already sitting behind the wheel, and Mike was next to her. That left me the back seat, next to Toni. Mike turned around and started telling a joke, when he saw my face.

'Hmm... Rough night?' He winked.

I smiled awkwardly, wondering whether I looked that bad. Usually, I wouldn't give a damn about it -at least not this early in the morning, but I wanted Toni to discover that women can be wonderful and I was adamant that I would be the one to show her. Since there was no chance of this ever happening, I mocked a grunt and hit him with one of the gloves I had just taken off.

For a brief moment, I fantasised about falling asleep, and 'inadvertently' slide onto her shoulder – or, even better, her lap. Laughing inwardly at my own adolescent stupidity, I remained awake, basking in the glorious sunrise that unveiled a crystal clear day, in Toni's profile, and in her magnificently normal body.

She took her jacket off and underneath she was wearing a tight high-neck polar-fleece jersey that hinted the promising swelling on her chest. I had been trying to figure out for six months the size and shape of her breasts, without much luck. I had once seen her at the beach, right after she'd taken a swim. Unfortunately for me, by the time she came back to where my friends and I were sitting, she had put on a loose t-shirt that only revealed her stiffened nipples. It took a great effort not to sit all afternoon staring at her breasts.

The jersey she was wearing now didn't show or hint much at all. I wondered if she had a Wonder Bra on, enhancing that kind of breasts that disappear when the woman is lying on her back. Looking as closely as I could under the circumstances, I realised that I couldn't even tell if she was wearing a bra at all. Soon, I found myself again working out a way to find out, or –even better- find a way to try them for size...

After an hour on the road, the only noises in the car were the music, the soft purr of the engine and a conversation between AJ and Mike that I couldn't hear. I tried to engage in conversation with Toni, but she just didn't seem interested in going beyond a quick update on work and general well-being. After a while, she turned her face to the right and stared outside the window. Bored and frustrated, I dozed off. I woke up when AJ had parked the car outside the cabin.

I realized that we had arrived and I was still sitting in my place, as far from Toni as the car would allow us. I had hoped to find someone interesting at the cabin, someone new to distract myself from the sheer hopelessness of my attraction towards Toni, but I only found Shauna and Todd making breakfast. My hope of 'another nail' was dashed off.

As we settled down around the table to have breakfast someone raised the issue of sleeping arrangements. There was no doubt that Shauna and Todd would be sleeping in the master bedroom –not only they were a couple, but had been staying here for a week already.

That left the other bedroom –with a double bed in it, and the sleeping couch in the living room –another double bed.

Everyone –except for Toni– said at unison 'I don't mind where I sleep.' I did mind who I slept with –if that 'who' was Toni, but saying anything would have meant walking into a complex territory that could have involved outing myself –and possibly AJ.

I had never understood why AJ had never told her friends that she was a lesbian. I was sure that they wouldn't reject her at all. In fact, it wouldn't make much of a difference –except that she would have been spared from evading compromising questions and unwanted blind dates with available guys.

But the fact remained that she wasn't out and these were her friends, thus, her choice. I didn't feel comfortable outing myself under these circumstances, although it would have made it easier for me if Toni at least knew about AJ. I still didn't have a clue what she thought about lesbianism.

Thinking of Toni made me wonder whether she was uncomfortable with the idea of having to share a bed with Mike, or –a chill tightened my spine- whether she was hoping she would actually have to.

I didn't get to see her reaction when Shauna resolved the issue, saying that since Mike and AJ had already shared so many nights in their trips abroad, they wouldn't mind one more night together now.

'Yes, but I rather sleep in the living room. It's warmer, and he won't rape me in a common area' joked AJ.

We laughed, and the issue was settled. I have no idea what was said after that, though.

Right after breakfast we all hurried to unpack and change into our skiing gear. I found myself standing next to Toni in the bedroom, facing the bed.

'So which side do you prefer?' said Toni matter-of-factly, as if she was asking me to choose between two slices of pie.

'Any. Right side'

She nodded and went around to the left side of the bed. She put her bag on the bed and started taking her clothes out. I realised that it changing clothes involved undressing first. I started sweating despite the cold air in the room.

Toni took her clothes out of the bag in a mechanical way, and just as methodically started taking her clothes off.

I tried to concentrate on my own clothes, but I fell safe from behind the strands of hair falling on my face, and couldn't help but staring. I fumbled around in my bag while my eyes followed her every move.

She had smooth, infinitely long legs for her 5'3" frame. I looked down the second I saw the striped panties appearing.

My brain spun furiously: she is straight, she likes dick, you don't have one, take the pants out not the hairbrush. Wake up. The warmth flooding my body blinded me and I ended up taking out the hairbrush instead of my pants after all.

I figured then that the only way out of this awkward situation was to mimic her mechanical movements. Maybe I would feel in equal terms, and that would calm me down. I took my pants off, carefully folded them and put them inside my bag.

My plan didn't work out. In fact, it had exactly the opposite effect. The cold air on my exposed legs, the sight of her naked legs, her nipples pushing against her long-sleeved t-shirt and the bed in between us knocked the air out of my chest. I was drowning in desire, my face burned in a blur. I turned around before she saw the blood flooding my face.

I finished changing as slowly as I could and waited until the noise of clothes being taken off and put on had ceased. I waited again until she left the room and closed the door. I got up, leaned on it, reached for my drenched panties and brought myself to the fastest orgasm I could remember.

* * *

'Come on now, let's go' AJ said as I came out of the bedroom.

'Yes yes, just a minute. I need to go to the bathroom quickly'

I scrubbed my hands clean with the strong smelling rose liquid soap, cleared my face with the icy water, and rushed out.

AJ was already in the car, with Mike sitting next to her. They were in the middle of one of their mock-fights, their laughs echoing in the eerie silence of the snow-covered pine trees around the cabin. Toni was standing outside the car, idly making a hole in the snow with the tip of her boot. She looked like a little girl, a bored tomboy, a poker player waiting for the next hand. I wonder what she'd said if she knew what I had just done thinking of her.

I got into the car, my hands deep inside my pockets

'OK, let's hit the road' AJ eyes searched and found mine in the rear-view mirror. I knew she knew that something was going on, and I smiled reassuringly.

I loved her. In another universe, in another lifetime, we would have had chemistry and would have given it a shot. Even for a night, just to kill the idle time, to fill the empty months, the hours spent without hands holding, caressing, wanting. But it just wasn't there, and we were both old enough to know that to even try would have been simply stupid. It was much better to have and hold those understanding, patient eyes that absolved me from the animal lust I was feeling, and from the frustration of knowing it was going nowhere.

* * *

The fresh snow rushed by under my skis. I had left my hair loose and the collar jacket open so the chilled air would lift me off, numb me. For a while, I was able to forget; I was alone and what my eyes couldn't see, my sex didn't desire.

After a while, when my legs started to burn from the effort, I stopped, sat on a rock behind the padded snow cannon and lit a cigarette. I heard the soft, rhythmic 'ssshoo-ssshoo' of skis grating against the snow. I saw red, blue, black, green ski clothes rush by. Some of them came by behind me heading for the off-piste trail, so I didn't get startled when one came up really close. I turned around only when I heard skies stopping behind.

It was Toni.

'You shouldn't smoke after doing exercise'

Right. Now she's chiding me, I thought. 'Yes, you are right, but you don't know what you're missing'

'Maybe I do.' Her comment sounded strange. I looked up, but her face was as serious as ever.

'But you don't smoke...'

'No. Well, I have a cigarette here and there'

'Want one?'

Her eyes pierced mine -or not: maybe the slightest direct eye contact was like exposing burnt skin to the sun. Still, she held my stare for a second longer than necessary. 'Later. Can I sit?'

She took her skis off and I moved aside; the rock was big enough for two, but only if the two people sat really close to each other.

'Nice day' she said, her eyes lost somewhere down in the valley.

I nodded absent-mindedly. Through my jacket and thermal shirt, my skin felt every little movement of her breathing, and that occupied all my sensorial and mental processing abilities.

'You ski very well', she said while taking her gloves off.

'Do I?' My heart jumped a litle hearing the compliment. That meant she had been watching me too... Strangely enough, I felt taller, stronger. Suddenly my foolish puppy lust games lost interest, and I felt like I could even flirt with her. Maybe I wouldn't be the only nervous one.

She immediately changed the subject. 'I'm thinking of trying the snowboard. Do you have that cigarette?

I took the packet out and gave her one. I took the lighter out but she made no motion to get it. I flicked it and a tiny yellow flame appeared. Her hands wrapped mine while she tried to light the cigarette. The breeze was soft, but still kept blowing the feeble flame out. I took my free hand and wrapped it over hers, blocking the wind. Finally she lit the cigarette but I left my hands on hers two seconds longer than required. Then I put away the lighter and packet, acting as casual as I could.

I felt more amused than excited by the contact of her warm hands on mine. I had taken action and that felt totally liberating. At that precise moment I felt free. It could have also been the accumulation of evidence against hope, the release earlier on, the spent energy on the slopes or the overwhelming feeling of stupidity for wanting the impossible.

It didn't matter; I felt free from the blinding desire, from the perpetual excitement I felt whenever she was around. She was free to look at all the guys she wanted, and I was free to start looking around for a nice, available lesbian. I would enjoy this slice of snowed-in paradise, the 3 days of skiing, and the friends.

I lit another cigarette and we smoked in silence.

We skied together for the rest of the afternoon, not exchanging a word until much later, when I said I was calling it a day, and that I'd go to grab a cup of hot chocolate at the main bar at the station.

She said she would do another run so I headed for the bar alone. I bumped into AJ at the entrance.

She was smirking. 'So... What's up?'

I smiled and shook my head

'Having fun'

'I see... How much fun, exactly?'

'Well, lots of fun -here, with you guys, on the trails. Look at this wonderful weather. It's perfect. As for the rest, I guess that I will survive the weekend after all'

'I'm glad.' Her eyes were deep, full of unsaids.

'I can handle it.' As the words came out, I felt I was trying to re-assure both of us.

'I know. By the way, don't you think that she's acting strange? Well, she is strange, but...'

'Who? Toni? Why?'

'Well, she's particularly quiet. I don't know. She is acting... odd. Odder than usual, that is' AJ shrugged

She knew Toni much better than I did. My first impulse was to find out more, to find out whether AJ thought that I might have anything to do with Toni's behaviour. Then I remembered my new-found resolve, and also saw Mike walking into the bar, pulling faces.

By the time Toni walked in, I was having great fun with my friends. I didn't care if she sat on my lap or on the other table. She sat right next to me, and I didn't even look her way.

* * *

That evening nobody seemed to care about the aching muscles. After dinner, both the wine and the conversation flowed easily around the fire. Shauna and Todd were holding each other, caressing each other in the casual way only long-time lovers can do: a retracing of each others' arms and hands without even being aware of it.

I saw Toni looking at them with what seemed a sad face. Her eyes followed their hands moving discreetly, the arms holding love. She was sitting opposite to me, on the other side of the fire. She looked relaxed but not as self-assured as she always did; her sunken chest was rising softly but hidden underneath crossed arms.

Suddenly I felt like holding her, but not in a sensual way. I just had the urge to feel her, cover her. I didn't realise that I was staring openly until I saw her eyes meeting mine. Our eyes had met often before –even if in a dead-pan way. I had always looked away, afraid she'd see the rawness in me. This time I didn't.

This time I smiled at her, not knowing why. She didn't smile back; she simply looked back, but not in the way she always did; she just looked, without blinking.

I couldn't unlock what was behind, but I was sure that there was something there.

Someone clapped, and the thundering noise sucked me back to the room, to this world. It was Mike, clapping at something someone had said –everyone was laughing. AJ was laughing too but her eyes were bouncing between Toni and I, and eventually landed on me. She looked at Toni one last time, then looked at me and winked.

I decided I'd call it a night, get into bed, and give it all a rest. I had no clue what to make of Toni's locked stare or AJ's wink, and was too tired to think. I decided to try and be asleep by the time Toni got into bed.

As I got up and announced I was going to bed, Toni got up too.

'I'm also turning in. Good night everyone'

I decided to let her get into her pyjamas alone, so I headed for the bathroom to change and brush my teeth.

She was already in bed by the time I got back. She was turned on her side facing away from my side. Her arm was hugging the pillow, her face almost buried in it. Her eyes were closed and seemed asleep.

I got into bed, turned on my side facing away from her and closed my eyes. My body and mind were exhausted but I couldn't switch off. I wanted to hold her. The thought of her being in the bed next to me was troubling me more that her physical presence –I couldn't see her and she wasn't moving at all. But she was there; her breathing reached me like a mermaid's song.

I wanted to drift off to sleep holding her. I wanted to wake up and still be holding her.

I felt a weight dropping in my stomach. This had not been in the plans, this wasn't part of my recent discovered freedom.

I had fallen from raw lust to apparent indifference to this. It didn't feel like a joke anymore, and it certainly didn't feel like freedom.

Soon her breathing became deeper and slower, and I knew she'd fallen asleep. Only then I fell asleep.

* * *

The light in the room woke me up. I was still looking away from Toni, in exactly the same position, and my body ached as if I hadn't slept at all. I turned around, and saw her facing my side, still fast asleep. There were no traces of her usual hardness; she looked just beautiful. Before I could stop myself, I saw my hand reaching out to her face. My index finger softly touched her smooth skin and moved a rebel strand of hair away from her eyes.

She stirred almost imperceptibly, but that was enough to make me react and retrieve my hand.

I turned away and noticed the familiar warmth creeping from within me. I got up and then realized that the house was completely silent.

AJ had left a note on the breakfast table saying that we should meet them at the main bar at 12 for a bite to eat, that they'll be in the red west trails.

It didn't surprise to find them gone, especially not AJ. She was a chronic early riser –regardless at what time she'd gone to bed, and 9 a.m. was mid-morning for her.

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