“Desiring another person is perhaps the most risky endeavor of all. As soon as you want somebody—really want him—it is as though you have taken a surgical needle and sutured your happiness to the skin of that person, so that any separation will now cause a lacerating injury.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
Despite her lack of experience, the roses on Catherine’s balcony readied to bloom.
After conversing about Elliot and contradictions and life, she and Vincent held each other while contemplating the buds—one glowing white as the moon, the other darker than blood.
They stood, a couple, together for the moment, balanced, slightly rocking, as if swayed by the wind or dancing to unheard music.
As their time wore on, her mood subtly shifted. Catherine’s initial excitement for his visit and her enthusiasm for her roses flowed and transformed, first into reflection, then wistfulness. Not all at once, but heartbeat to heartbeat, as night overshadowed evening.
Vincent didn’t need the sigh that escaped her to confirm her changing emotions, but it was an impetus to speak.
“Hmmm,” she answered from his arms, managing to agree and sound surprised at his observation.
“What are you thinking of?” he asked and kissed the top of her head, instinct leading, just as it had when kissed her wound. Why he’d reacted to a pricked finger in such a way, he couldn’t have said, couldn’t describe the past compulsion, the imperative, except he’d wished to take away her pain.
Her embrace grew tighter in reply to his present affection. It was more like that these days, the small acts of devotion and intimacy, all comforting … and perilous.
Still gazing at the buds, she replied, “I was thinking about the different types of love.”
“You mean in the color of the roses?” he asked, following her gaze.
“Yes,” she agreed, seeming pleased he saw why and how her thoughts turned. “About what the colors signify, the white and the red.” She hesitated a second before finishing the thought. “White for ‘pure’ love, red for ‘romantic’.”
Another instinct, one he wished he didn’t have, but needed… needed to keep her safe.
Responding to his tension, she drew away slightly. And at her release, he was across the balcony before he recognized the drive to separate.
He didn’t know who owned the exposed and unsteady emotion coursing through him. It could have been either of them.
A grounding breath, and another. He would not ruin this evening. He would not—not after she had survived the explosion and the men at the pier … survived Elliot … again.
Vincent had a second-hand fondness for the man, despite the jealousy that always reared at his mention. But that didn’t mean he would forgive Elliot for putting her in danger. Elliot wasn’t getting what he couldn’t offer himself. Not this time.
Vincent circled the roses. Careful of the thorns, he traced the curling, feather-like leaves and the silk of the barely exposed petals with a claw.
“Philia and Eros,” he said, trying to give her the words and break the tension he’d caused, “friendship and passion.”
“Yes,” she concurred … and added unexpectedly. “What I feel for Elliot is one type, even if what he feels for me is the other.”
Vincent watched her, awaiting, breath held. In the last days, there were many truths expressed between them, spoken and unspoken. He suspected she was about to reveal another.
“I used to confuse the two.”
“How so?” he asked, trying to sound unaffected … and probably failing.
“The men I dated, the ones in college, then Steven—” she recalled, with what he would only describe as chagrin at the remembrance. “They desired me.” She chuffed. “Steven seemed to have more than enough … yearning for both of us.”
She smirked slightly—only time and her determination taking the pain the man caused and rounding its edges.
She focused on the roses.
“And after him was Andrew, then Tom … and I believed it was enough.”
“What do you mean?”
She shook her head, backing away from the flowers.
“I don’t know.”
She did … but she’d decided not to finish the thought, so unlike her—forthright to a near fault, except on certain occasions, except when she tried to spare him discomfort.
She drew her robe close about her.
“It doesn’t matter, Vincent.”
It did. It mattered.
Her thoughts and feelings mattered.
He had, of late, learned when she wanted to tell him something … and the specific feeling of when she held back—longing trapped within her chest. A knot pulled so tight, she’d deny it was even there.
He circled the buds, beginning again, eliciting.
“The white symbolizes an innocent love, a wish for good for the other person.”
“Yes,” she replied, her gaze following him, wary.
“That’s what you feel for Elliot?” he asked.
She nodded at his question, eyes wide, vulnerable.
He understood. It didn’t stop him.
“And the red symbolizes desire, attraction.”
She nodded again.
“But …” He hesitated before plunging on. “That isn’t what you feel for him.”
She shook her head in answer, as if he asked. But he hadn’t, not really. Still, the confirmation was appreciated—a star in uncharted waters.
“When I was young,” she offered, loosening a little from her taut hold, “I thought it was enough … to be wanted. It was good to be wanted. I was good at it—how to dress, what to say, and how to act to be desired.”
He couldn’t deny that.
“And I assumed that was all there was,” she said, contemplating the roses again. She held the heavy planter, as if she needed steadying. “A man who wanted me would send me gifts, take me places … I should be grateful … even if I didn’t feel the same.”
She lingered a moment longer before turning and wilting into one of the cast-iron chairs at the corner of the terrace.
“I’m sorry, Vincent,” she said as if waking from a daydream. “It’s a beautiful evening,” she sighed, “and I’m going to ruin it with my history of bad boyfriends.”
There it was again, the hunger to speak fastened away.
“You won’t—” he began.
“Vincent, I really don’t think you want to hear this.” She didn’t look at him as she spoke, instead gazed out into the city.
She turned to him, interrupting. “I frightened you when I said I wished you’d kissed me, when I hurt my hand and you kissed it away.” She gestured to where they’d been standing. “I felt it in my arms, just now. Vincent, I don’t want to scare you.”
She didn’t, and he loved her for her concern. But the ache still lived in her heart.
“We should drop this,” she implored him.
They should. They should moor on safe shores and shield themselves in cautious conversation, away from pain, away from life.
Yet as amazing as it was, life had taken root on the balcony they stood on. The rose flourished in an inhospitable city, aided by Catherine’s care.
With her love, with her heart in balance, should he be any less courageous?
“Catherine,” he exhaled, “I wish to know.”
“I really don’t think you do.” A scrape of words escaping her.
“Because I want you!” she blurted, her arms open.
He stumbled a bit. He couldn’t help it. Even if he considered … to hear that, from her … after so much caution, after literally beating about the bush …
She shook her head as if to say he’d reacted as she’d suspected he would.
“Can you doubt it?” she demanded. “I don’t think I’m that subtle.”
It was a long while of her looking deliberately away before carefully, quietly, going on.
“With those other men, with Elliot … they wanted me, and before you, I believed that it was enough. It was enough, then. I asssumed being desired by someone was all there was, all there truly had to be, for love.”
She raised her gaze to him.
“And then I met you.”
Frustration gave way to tenderness in her eyes.
“I met you. I loved you and I finally understood what wanting someone, really wanting them, felt like.”
What it felt like …
Exquisite longing married to the rawest vulnerability.
It was being driven but defenseless, weak and strong.
It was looking at another person and knowing they were everything.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Sorry to love him? To desire him?
“I don’t want you to be afraid,” she explained, but her eyes left his, worried, perhaps for what they might find there. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
He understood all too well.
Phila and Eros.
They both went silent, giving him space to consider everything she’d revealed, she’d gifted.
Even in his laughably poor experience with the opposite sex, he knew one-sided, innocent love.
Lena had, in her clearly damaged way, wanted him. Yet he hadn’t desired her, except in the most fleeting masculine sense, and knowing of the abuse she’d endured killed that impulse before it breathed.
Philia—that’s what he felt for Lena—and truly, what she probably felt for him, had she been able to parse out her feelings as Catherine had. He wanted Lena’s good, loved her for who she was, but was never in love with her.
And as for the dark heat of desire, he’d known that too.
He had wanted Lisa, as much as a boy on the verge of manhood understood the mysteries of sexual need. But she hadn’t desired him, and his craving had caused them both great harm.
Yet, he had to accept that the past hurt had come from the unrequited nature of that yearning, despite Father’s continued warnings.
Because then there was Catherine …
A woman of the world, thrown into his life and he into hers.
To stumble upon the person you longed for, and who longed for you in return … wasn’t that incredible … magical, even? And infinitely more miraculous that he, of all creatures, should find her?
He knelt on the concrete ground before her.
The wind had picked up, whipping her robe and his cloak in turn. Catherine nervously plucked her hair back behind her ear while studying him.
She was immensely beautiful, and he did want her. Would it be so out of the question to act on such desire? Wouldn’t it be more unbelievable to toss away the possibility?
“I’ve had lovers who desired me for my looks,” she said, “for the way I made them feel, but they didn’t see me. You do. You want to know my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams, every part of me.” She chuffed and smiled. “Even when they frighten you.”
She shook her head, so firm in her truths.
“You’ve always supported everything I’ve put my mind to … like trying to grow roses here.” She motioned to the planter with a small laugh, then sighed. “And when I got pricked by the thorns, you wanted to make it better, and in that moment—not just that moment, but especially then … I desired you.”
She looked down. “But I understand your fear of where it may lead.” Her pain easy to see, easier to percieve. “I want what’s best for you … I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You know I feel the same.”
I must shield you.
“Yes,” she returned.
Phila and Eros.
She had gifted him with her friendship … and her honesty.
Could he requite them?
He took a shaky breath.
“You told me you wished I had been the one to kiss you.”
She nodded, eyes wide.
“But at the time, I was keeping you safe, safe from the men chasing you and Elliot … safe from the world, and that must be my priority. My love for you is, and has always been, Phila first.”
“That’s why I won’t push you,” she said, her gaze dropping.
Her voice trembled.
“I want you to want me too, Vincent, and if you don’t, then we can remain as we are. Because that kind of love from you is better than the other from anybody else.”
She doubted his desire? Even when Eros nearly overcame him?
Was it fair, was it best, to shield her from that truth?
Rising to his knees, he enfolded her, rocking her as one would comfort a child. But she was not a child, and she deserved to know.
“Catherine …” He spoke softly to her ear. “The first rose I ever gave you, what color was it?”
After a long time, her answer, faint on the wind. “Red.”
He withdrew just enough to search her features and feelings.
“Almost … from the first moment …” he promised. “Question my courage. Mistrust my body and my control, but never doubt my love.”
It was exposing to tell her, yet in the sharing, dread dissipated … a bit, anyway.
He let his forehead fall to hers, whispering, “I do not know what I am capable of … in any sense. I fear for you, but I also want you … every part, with everything that I am.”
She relaxed into his arms, into his declaration, and they stayed that way for a moment, eschewing the dangers of more conversation, simply being, and contemplating the next step.
Vincent didn’t know what to do, a lifetime of dictates and doubts warring with passion.
Elliot had kissed her.
Elliot had shared who he was, his sadness, his tragedies, and she loved him for it.
Elliot lived in her world, a man with every advantage, physical and financial.
But she didn’t want Elliot.
Instead, she wanted … she wanted him.
“I love you, Vincent,” she whispered, confirming his wild thoughts. “If I promised my love would never change …” She ventured, like she was testing the waters, “… that it will flourish until forever, no matter what happens, do you think … do you think we might see if we … could …”
“… allow the red to grow?” He finished her question, heart pounding with hope and possibilities.
“Yes,” she said, answering his dreams with hers.
Her roses weren’t the only thing she had nurtured of late.
“We don’t know if it’s possible,” he responded, “but perhaps our love, like your rose, is a joining of both desire and wish for our love’s ultimate good.”
A smile of both relief and anticipation graced her features.
“Maybe that’s what the best love is?” she postulated, her palm coming to cup his cheek. “That’s how I feel for you.”
Her scent and softness surrounded him, and he couldn’t help but savor her touch, relaxing into her hand.
He whispered into her fingers, “That’s how I feel for you.”
Then with trembling reach, but also steadfast in purpose, he took her chin and did what he was certain she was going to the few days before, what they should have done — he captured her lips in a kiss.
And like the miracle it was, she kissed him back.
It was a beginning.
The first time …
The first time they tried …
The first time they tried that, it didn’t go right.
Really not right.
Like launched-to-opposite-sides-of-the-bedroom, not right.
But that was after they’d tried other things.
Lots of other things.
So many other things …
Including ones that Catherine hadn’t attempted before …
… and some she hadn’t even thought of.
Which was surprising—impressive, really—since she wasn’t the virgin in their relationship.
For someone whose education in lovemaking was—in his blushing explanation—only related to him under duress and in the haziest of general principals, Vincent could be … inventive, curious. He must have spent some time and effort on self-study, or, at least, in contemplation and conjecture, because Vincent, as in all things, could be resourceful … and meticulous.
For instance, they devoted the better part of an evening mapping each other’s faces.
After she’d traced the planes and indents of his strong features, sweeping up the fur of his nose, across his sharp cheek bone, following his jaw to his lips—one soft, lush even, the other cleft and hard—he took his turn. He’d stroked over her face with the barest touch of his claws, causing sensitive shivers all over her body, before homing in, fascinated with her cupid’s bow and the curl of her bottom lip, running a pad back and forth. With a finger’s worth of pressure he got her to open her mouth before drawing her into a unique kiss of his own.
And on the next night he’d mapped … other places.
He took his time. He learned her, cherished her, and chased her pleasure with a thorough and ingenious passion.
Not that it was all easy, or not sometimes awkward.
The first days after they kissed were full of difficult conversations from birth control to boundaries, safety and limitations. He nearly fled more than once in a flurry of self-conscious mortification, but she drew him back with a promise that they’d never do anything he wasn’t ready for.
It felt right to give him what she wished she’d been offered by her first lovers.
And she’d kept her word.
Even when she thought she was going to burst from need.
Even when she suspected she’d burn from desire.
He understood, he had said, and judging from his body’s … reactions … he felt it too.
“But it’s such a ‘sweet pain’,” he’d assured, he cajoled, as he coaxed her to another rapturous and heart-stopping peak.
And she was happy.
Even Joe noticed. How could he not?
The day after Vincent kissed her she’d “danced into the office on bubbles,” according to her friend. It did feel like bubbles, or butterflies in her belly—butterflies fluttering in celebration.
She wanted to tell Joe, I’m in love, and he wants me. Vincent wants me, and I want him. But she couldn’t, so she didn’t, keeping her boss at bay with secret smiles and changing subjects. And since Joe couldn’t ruin her mood with any last-minute depositions or complaints that needed to be drafted and delivered before the end of the day, he moved on.
No unexpected continuances could compete with a lover who recited erotic poetry into your breasts.
Now she wore a scarf more often than not, and she wondered if it was her imagination that Vincent sported high-necked shirts most of the time. Father, and everyone else Below, had to suspect something was going on with them spending at least three evenings a week together until night turned from black to pre-dawn blue.
Yet in all those nights together, they hadn’t tried … that.
They’d waited, putting it off until Vincent was satisfied the pills she started taking were doing their job.
But finally, after doing many other things, after talking it over and setting a night, lighting candles, and kissing until she thought she would die from the desire to be filled by him, they tried.
And when he attempted to enter her, he met … resistance.
Resistance that propelled him straight off her.
It took a moment to recover breath and bearings, his absence so sudden—from entwined together, to him completely across the room—but once she did, she hurried after him.
“I … hurt you …” he said, barely a whisper.
“I did! I felt it!” he shouted, turning into the wall, shame bowing his body.
To see this man, intelligent and fierce, who had faced terrors unnumbered, cowed by nothing but her discomfort …
Nothing. Everything. Everything to him. Everything he fears.
She breathed, gathering her wits and tramping down nervousness. She snatched on her robe, then encircled him with a blanket before kneeling on the carpet beside him.
“Vincent. I’m not hurt. I’m not at all. It’s just …”
How to explain to someone who’s never …
“I haven’t done this in a really long time. Things are bound to be—”
“Impossible,” he finished from behind his hands.
Dear God, she loved him, but he could be so frustrating.
“No,” she countered, trying to send calm. “Tight.”
He didn’t argue … but he didn’t acknowledge her words either.
“And I’m nervous,” she went on. “I want this to go right so much.”
I want this to be good for you. You deserve that. To be good for me, too. You’ll realize if it isn’t.
I also want you to do this because you’re ready.
“I told you, we’d never do anything you aren’t comfortable with.” She rubbed his arm. “If you want to stop, we stop.”
He took a few moments in which all she heard was the pounding of her heart before he shook his head no.
But that still doesn’t fix that you’re all the way across the room from the bed.
“I think you’re a little nervous too?” she ventured, attempting to catch his eyes. “If you are, it’s natural.”
Finally, he glanced up, and she tried to offer an encouraging smile.
“It’s normal,” she added.
With the words, something seemed to lift from his shoulders.
Looks like the right direction …
“I love you, Vincent. I want to work on this with you.”
Are you willing? she asked silently.
He didn’t reply, but he took her hand and gave it an affirmative squeeze.
Good. He needs to understand.
“I should have warned you that when we … make love, there might be some … extra pressure … maybe soreness, at the beginning,” she rushed to reassure him. “But only at the beginning and nothing I can’t handle. My body needs time to get used to you. You’re, umm … bigger than …”
Bigger than anyone I’ve ever been with.
He must have caught the shape of her thoughts because a blush raced up his cheeks, gold to red-gold, reminding her of a warm sunset. After a moment of drinking in his beautiful, chiseled angles by the candlelight, she placed a lingering kiss on his temple.
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
“I do—” yet there was a but coming.
“Vincent,” she interrupted before his disputes started. “It barely hurt, and you stopped. You can stop … and try again, see? It’s not the end of the world. None of this is the end of the world.”
He peered into her eyes, and she saw the truth of her statement settle into him.
I will love you no matter how this goes.
She let her robe open to his gaze. It darkened along with his cheeks, his eyes sweeping her body.
“I want to keep going, if you do.”
He rose, the blanket falling from his shoulders.
Definitely the right direction.
“Come to bed?” she asked, she entreated.
He paused before her, somehow brazen and vulnerable, modest and virile all at once.
A breath, a choice, and he was pushing her back into the pillows.
She anchored him on top of her, feeling his body’s weight and desire.
“Catherine …” he professed and requested in one word.
“I want you,” she repeated. She would repeat it for eternity if he would let her.
In answer, he spread her robe open further, a bud unfurling in his light.
He kissed her neck and ran a hand from her shoulder to her breast, cupping her, teasing her, gaining confidence with her reaction. Then he reached lower, gliding over her stomach to the apex of her thighs.
He must have approved of what he found there.
With a dark look of need, he took her leg, pivoting her hip wide in his large hand. Then, not taking his eyes from hers, pressed in.
This time, slick, ready, she yielded to his insistence. Exquisite friction. Delicious ache as he filled her body, her heart, her soul.
And because he knew her as she knew him, trusted her as she trusted him, loved her as she loved him …
This time, everything went right.
Sometime during the days together Vincent realized there are treasures only uninterrupted time can provide—conversations, experiences, laughter, intimacies afforded and shared.
It was a Sunday a few weeks later. They’d woken late after he’d stayed the night (with Father’s exasperated, “Do what you will”, waving-away approval.) Light from a hazy morning greeted them—light that Vincent was getting used to, now treasuring.
They’d left the bed at no one’s whim but their own, read the Times over pastries and coffee, (she started with the Metro, he with the front page,) collaborated on the crossword, and ended the morning resting on pillows against the balcony wall, reading their respective books.
If you had asked Vincent what would change in their relationship if they ever became lovers, he never would have predicted the deepening of their friendship. Yet once they’d declared their desire, the dread of what truth might slip in an unguarded conversation vanished, and they experienced a new type of freedom. Freedom to fill days being themselves within the other’s company, and freedom to spend nights embracing, speaking of nothing and everything, intimate, whole, accepted in each other’s love.
The late summer sun brightened their fluttering pages to a glow, while the perfume of flowers wafted across the balcony. The heady scent interrupted his revelry in time to catch Catherine’s sparkling green eyes peeking at him.
She did this often.
While reading or listening to music, at meetings Below, working together on respective projects, or even having tea with Father, she snuck glances, considered him, studied him.
Within the bond he discerned her appreciation—recognized as the twin emotion living in his own heart—her satisfaction, awe, curiosity tinged with longing, also shared, also remarkable.
It made him smile—always—astonished how wanting encompassed so much.
Sometimes, he even laughed with joy.
Because, despite his lack of experience, despite his fears for her and for them, despite their wounds and the self-conscious kisses to make them better, they chose Phila and Eros, the red and the white, and because of that their love bloomed.