New Year’s SurprisebyLothario the Great©
Tamara finally acted as though she knew what she had done was wrong. Her smile faded. "It's like I said. We never meant to hurt you."
"You could have told me."
"Told you what? Told you why? We had secrets of our own."
"But you knew all mine."
"I doubt that." Tamara set her glass on the worn-out coffee table. "Look, I'm sorry. Beverly and I both are. I..." The girl swallowed hard. "I guess I have to confess... we were afraid if we told you we knew about your stash, you wouldn't let us see it anymore."
Ben had to think about that one. "That's not true," he said, testing the waters.
"Don't be so sure. It's easy to know what to do now, ten years later. At the time, we were all just kids. I mean, you dropped live firecrackers down my dress!"
Ben laughed, embarrassed. "I thought you forgave me for that."
"If they hadn't fallen out the bottom, I wouldn't have. But I did, and I do. We are what we are now, Ben. We're best friends."
The words filled Ben like warm honey. "You and me?"
Tamara shrugged. "I think so. I always have. The Three Musketeers, remember?"
"Yeah," Ben nodded. "And okay, maybe you're right, I would have just thrown all those tapes away right then. But it doesn't seem fair. You guys were, I dunno, having fun, and I wasn't a part of that."
"Oh really? And how would that have worked?"
Ben had to think on that one, too. Ben and Tam, that was easy to envision, but Ben and Bev? Or all three of them? Even with a hands-off rule, it just didn't make sense, and honestly, it would have turned Ben and Tam's friendship into something too adult too fast, even as it started to break down what Tam and Bev shared innocently. They had all been as close as possible, or at least as close as they could get and still be able to make sense according to their own gender and sibling rules. It didn't take Ben long to realize the girls had made the right decision.
"So you're right," Ben admitted. "But it's still not fair."
"Okay, I agree," Tamara said. "What do we do to fix it?"
Ben had to smile, not knowing if Tamara was serious or not, not knowing if he wanted her to be. "Maybe the past is the past," he said, not really knowing what it meant.
"That's true," Tamara said.
Ben stood, shaking his head, trying to get the blood flowing to his brain again. "Let's go grab some lunch."
"That sounds awesome," Tamara said, "but like I said, I'm broke. My loan check doesn't arrive for another week."
"It's on me. I'm not done talking yet."
"Yeah, me neither. Though I don't know what more you want to hear about... all that."
"Actually, I wanted to get some more off my chest about Wendy."
"It's still pretty tender. Do you mind?"
"Oh god, not at all. I completely understand. Just don't expect me to say a single nice thing about her."
"Why not? She was nice to you."
Tamara just shook her head and laughed. "You didn't see how catty she was to me that first time we met?"
Ben scratched his head. "It's different for girls..."
They went out to Ben's car, and for the first time he noticed Tamara's black Camero parked on the curb, the same car she'd been driving since her sweet sixteen, that is, for four years. The plan was to leave it there while they ate.
Ben asked, "What you in the mood for? Tacos?"
"Ooh, yeah. Let's go to Pedro's. They have fish tacos."
"Fish? That's nasty, Tam. Beef tacos only."
"What about chicken tacos?"
"We could always get porn tacos."
"Oh fuck, not this again."
"Sorry. It's foremost in my thoughts."
Tamara buckled her seatbelt. "Maybe we've got time for porn-chiladas."
Ben laughed. "A porn-perroni pizza."
"Maybe a few porn dogs."
That did it. They fell into a new fit of laughter, so loud in the car it hurt. As they wound down, Tamara pushed her fingers against her eyeballs. "Look, come on. Do me a favor, okay, or this lunch is just not going to work. No more talk about pornography. None. I'm still pretty embarrassed about the whole thing."
Ben still hadn't started the car. The weather outside was hardly what a Northerner like himself would call cold—south California barely had a winter at all, relatively speaking—but there was enough of a chill in the car to be noticed. There had to be a reason for him not to turn on the engine, and that reason was the unfinished business about the almost-stolen tapes and what they meant. He wouldn't be able to move on without at least a moment of closure.
He said, "I guess I'm embarrassed, too. I don't really want to talk about it, either, but I'm just so nervous I can't help it. Look, it's not the same for you. You've been... in the KNOW for so long. Maybe you don't know this, but until about an hour ago, I didn't even know girls—that is, girls who weren't getting paid to get filmed—really even though about, like, masturbation. It was a distant concept before, and now, BOOM, it's hitting close to home."
Tamara played with a strand of her hair. "But... are you thinking about... about ME... doing it? That's the embarrassing part."
"So what if I am? You've SEEN ME DO IT!"
Tamara slapped his arm. "Oh come on, Ben. You were, like, twelve. So was I. It wasn't weird or wrong or dirty. It was fun, and kinda sweet."
"Not for me. I always had to hide it. I'm sure other boys had circle jerks during Scouting trips or whatever, but I didn't know anything about that until, you know, I got to college. I was just alone, and now I find out, I didn't have to be. Or... no, I guess, I couldn't have been a part of what you and Bev had. Or if you invited me, I would have said no."
"Yeah, I get it. There was no way it could have happened except the way it did."
"And I never would have known except for today."
"Can I say one thing?"
Tamara smiled. "I'm not sorry you found out."
The sense of relief Ben had been waiting for blossomed like a fragrance. He hadn't known what it would take to put him and Tamara back in the comfort zone, but she had figured it out. Now all he had to do to keep them there was set the subject aside for a while, which he was happy to do.
"Fish tacos, huh?"
"Come on. You'll love 'em."
"Only in California."
The conversation on the way to Pedro's mostly revolved around Wendy, with Tamara continuing the "What-A-Bitch" line of commentary and Ben countering with "She-Wasn't-So-Bad," mostly in order to justify staying by her side for so long. Then suddenly, the new Fall Out Boy song came on the radio, and Tamara started moving her head to the beat. Ben turned the radio up, and they both sang to the vulgar chorus when it arrived. Music was the passion shared between the three kids, a passion that never needed explaining or dissecting. Ben and Bev, close twins by any definition, had always been very comfortable singing and dancing together, at every age and during any car ride, and Tamara had easily fit into that groove.
And as Ben watched the girl dancing from the shoulders up, singing with abandon, sharing the moment with him, he wondered if today would be the day he finally found the guts to profess his undying love for her. She was the love of his life, there could be no denying it, but for one reason or another—she was his sister's friend, she was more of a sibling to him than a "real girl," she always had eyes for someone else—he had never made a move. Maybe today it all changed. Maybe not. He just needed to keep his main goal for the day in mind: Don't scare Tamara off. She was, categorically, his best friend after Beverly, and he couldn't lose that at any cost. If anything, he was addicted to merely looking at her. Wendy had been beautiful, but Tamara was pretty, the pinnacle of pretty, the literal and figurative girl next door. As the music played on, he realized with a touch of sadness it had been about three years since he had even admitted to himself he had these feelings, and as they drudged up all the old feelings, the good, the bad and the complicated, he remembered why he'd repressed the whole thing. But one feeling he'd never been able to repress, one feeling he focused on even now and that he'd carry with him for the rest of his life: God, she's cute. Used to be crush-cute, then it was sexy-cute. Now, she was perfect-cute. And he wanted her, he really did.
He ordered the beef tacos but tried one of Tamara's fish and liked it, and they ended up splitting their orders with each other. The music-and-movies discussion continued throughout the meal, with one person talking while the other chewed, that old familiar rhythm formed over the years. Virtually every time before, this same discussion topic had been a Ben-Bev-Tam project; once again, moments with just Benjamin and Tamara had been rare. But even so, Ben had no trouble understanding why they were so comfortable with just the two of them. She'd been a part of his life for so long.
Tamara refilled their drink cups, and they stayed a while talking in the booth. She said, "This town is so dead during the breaks."
"Typical college town in the desert. Everyone's either skiing or sunbathing."
Ben nodded. "Except us."
"I hope Gil's freezing his ass off in Tennessee."
"That's right, Gil was his name. I knew there was something fishy about him."
Ben held up a wadded fish taco wrapper with a sense of ceremony. "We bid farewell to Gil, that ignoble cad, and eat fish tacos in his honor. May he suffer from herpes."
Tamara quickly added, "But we don't want him to have caught it until AFTER he left us."
"Hear hear." Ben dropped the wrapper.
The girl leaned her elbow on the table and supported her chin. "Still... I miss him."
"Yeah, I know the feeling."
"Not the fake sincerity or the flowers or anything. That was all just to get me in bed."
"So what do you miss?"
Tamara smiled shyly. "I miss being in his bed."
She winced. "Is that too weird to talk about?"
Ben felt a thrill at the direction the discussion was going, not purely sexual (though there was that) but just that he and Tam were opening up to each other in a new way. Also, it was one of the bases he would have covered with Beverly if he'd been able to discuss the break-up with her, so it was nice to have the topic on the table now. He said, "Let's agree that our original promise still stands—everything that happens today is a secret shared. Nothing's off limits."
Tamara nodded with an air of pomp. "Done."
"So you and Gil were... active?"
Tamara drew in a breath, held it, blew it out noisily. "Well, I think you know now, I like sex. And also, I think you understand the need. We're both just wired that way."
"All three of us."
"I mean, Bev and I weren't shy about sharing the details. About our own sex lives, not about yours. And of course, she never told me about you and her."
"That sort of surprises me, but also not."
"I follow. Anyway, we both started dating at age 15, and we were both horny as hell. There was a lot to discuss."
"Bev told me you lost your virginity with your first girlfriend."
"Ah, Henrietta, the cheerleader." Ben closed his eyes and reminisced. "I think she got an earlier start than I did." He looked at Tamara again. "And I heard you gave yours up with Pete Ashton. You were 15, too, right?"
Tamara smiled. "I still think about Pete all the time. That's how it goes."
"But it's not true."
"What's not true?"
"You didn't give it up to Pete."
"No. You gave it up to Beverly."
Tamara set her drink cup down. "Oh." She stammered. "Well, I guess we didn't see it that way."
"We were just having fun, you know? We weren't in love, we were best friends."
"So you aren't—forgive me for being blunt—you don't consider yourselves bisexual?"
"No, I guess not. See, if you'd asked us, we'd have said we were only playing around, just with each other instead of with dolls or clothes. More importantly, neither of us like girls now, and we don't see each other that way anymore."
"When was the last time you two did something together?"
Tamara made a face as though trying to recall the facts of the case. Ben was glad to see the embarrassment had almost vanished from the situation. She said, "Truthfully, the last time we touched like that was senior year of high school."
"Does that mean there's been something since then that didn't involve touching?"
Tamara held her hands open, a helpless gesture. "I mean, yeah, we're still pretty open about masturbation." She laughed dryly. "I can't believe I'm telling you about this stuff."
"Don't stop now."
"Well, you remember that movie 'The Notebook?'"
"Hell yes. That's one sexy movie."
"Bev and I watched it, and when it got to the part where it's raining and they get naked in a hurry, we both just looked at each other and agreed it would be okay. You know what I mean."
"So you two..."
Tamara nodded. "Got naked and enjoyed that scene. Most natural thing in the world."
Ben shook his head. "See..." The idea formed, but the words came slowly. "See, that's what I was missing growing up. I wouldn't have minded having a buddy there to share it with. I would even have settled for Beverly, you know? I hope that's not too weird."
"Not at all. I know exactly what you mean."
"But she had you. She didn't need me for that. I dunno, I think it comes from watching porn at such an early age."
Tamara reacted enthusiastically to this point. "I know exactly what you mean. It's like, as a kid, sex is this big mystery that no one ever talks about, and then all of a sudden, you get your hands on this tape, and two people are doing EVERYTHING, and it shows EVERYTHING, and you can watch it over and over again, and after that, no one can tell you that sex isn't this really open, un-embarrassing thing."
"Right! With multiple people, and other people watching, and just laughing and talking about it like it's nothing."
"Yeah." Tamara took a drink through the straw. "Except it's not like that."
Ben smiled. "Not exactly, no."
"Relationships are tough."
"And sex complicates things."
"But they don't TELL you that on the tapes."
"No, it's like, you think sex is just another fun thing to do, like going to the movies." Ben made a face. "But maybe, for you and me, it is. Right? Or is that why you stopped?"
"Oh, I haven't stopped. I just stopped with Bev. She made it really safe and fun, and when I started making it with boys, there wasn't any danger involved, except the good kind of danger."
"Yeah, I agree. I mean, everyone talks about how you have to be careful with sex, and I guess I can see how I might hurt a certain kind of girl with my attitude toward it. But for me, it's never been something that hurt me. It's only been fun."
"Did Wendy enjoy sex?"
Ben blew a raspberry. "My god, Wendy. She wanted to save it for marriage."
"Well, it wasn't so bad. I mean, in a way, it felt like she was my first real girlfriend, you know? Because without the sex, we had to find other ways to communicate. We kissed a lot, and fooled around some, but I really thought it was more serious between us than... well, apparently, than she did."
"Then looking back on it, you two didn't communicate that well at all."
Ben scratched his head. "I guess, maybe it's because I communicate through sex. See, all the girls I dated before Wendy, there was always sex involved, and we felt much closer, but it was a false kind of closeness. This is so hard to figure out, even now."
"No, I get what you're saying. It's the same for the boys I've known. They all came across like they wanted sex as much as, or more than, I did, but deep down inside, they were all pretty innocent, just like Wendy."
"Yeah, that's it! Most people aren't addicted to porn."
Tamara laughed out loud. "Oh my god, you're right! It's just us!"
Ben joined her in laughing. "I guess it's true."
"So, in the end, the only person who could understand how we see sex and dating... would be us. Each other."
Ben raised an eyebrow. "God, you're right." He looked out the window. "What do you think THAT means?"
Tamara obviously had something she wanted to say, but it took her a while to say it. "Maybe... I dunno... maybe we're only good with people like..." She shrugged.
"People like us," Ben offered.
"Yeah," Tamara said softly.
"But how many people like that are there in the world?"
"Less than we think...?"
"I guess the obvious answer is..."
Tamara blushed. "I know what you're thinking."
"I don't think you do."
"Yes I do."
"Let's just say..." Tamara chewed her tongue a little. "Let's just say... the thought has crossed my mind."
Ben's heart suddenly raced. "Are we talking about the same thing here?"
"I don't know. Are we?"
He decided to go for it, at least to the edge of the cliff (without going over yet). "It sounds like we're discussing the idea that you and I would only be good for someone like... you and I."
Tamara smiled, not her grin or her brilliant flashing smile but the one she kept for special occasions, the unguarded, revelatory smile, Ben's favorite. "Well, there it is."
"Well then," Ben said, "I guess I have to admit, the thought has crossed my mind, too."
"Yeah?" Tamara said, with an excitement Ben would not have expected.
"Of course! It's kinda obvious."
Tamara seemed to tremble. "But if it's so obvious, why didn't we ever... oh my god!"
"You know why! You were Bev's friend. That made you and me like brother and sister, or sometimes like enemies. It was just weird."
"But it wasn't weird. We're really good friends. It makes sense. It always did." Tamara shook with nervous, positive energy. Ben felt that energy electrocuting him.
"Wait wait wait. Just wait a minute. Let's take a step back."
"Okay," Tamara said, acquiescing.
"Okay." The smile remained on Tamara's face. Benjamin stared at her, stared hard, the way every boy would stare at every woman if they thought there was no chance of getting caught, the way he might stare at a porn movie just as the money shot was about to arrive, and the girl stared back at him in exactly the same way. He drank in every detail of her—the way her chest moved under the sweater, as her heart raced in time with his own, the way she gently bit her bottom lip. Tamara had, literally, undeniably, never before been as cute as she was in this moment.
Ben looked at the table so his voice would work. "You need a better reason to... like... someone... than that we aren't suitable for anyone else."
"Oh." Tamara made an I-guess-I-kinda-see-your-point face. "That makes sense."
"I mean, yes, it's probably true, it's probably all true. I'm just saying... Okay. What I'm saying is, obviously, OBVIOUSLY, you and I are probably one-hundred percent compatible in terms of... a physical relationship."
"Obviously." Tamara's voice nearly cracked.
"But I think it's time..." Ben finally started to settle down as he arrived at his main point. "I think it's time I had a relationship that was based on more than sex."
Tamara was crest-fallen. "Oh," she said, unable to hide her disappointment.
But Ben wasn't finished. "I mean, if you and I ever did... you know... date..." Ben took a drink. "It would have to be because we really liked each other."
Tamara's smile returned. "Right."
"I'm talking a lot here."
"I don't mind."
"Good. Good. This kinda came from out of the blue."
Tamara pressed her palms flat on the table. Ben stared at her beautiful hands. She said, "Yeah, it really did. Look, here's what I propose."
"Let's say it's possible that you and I could start something... someday. If we ever did, we'd need to be sure about it."