Things aren't always what they seem.
And in the light, Sleeping Shadows awaken and truths are exposed.
I love you.
Of all the lies he ever told me, that is my favorite.
Phoenix isn't who he thinks he is.
He is what he hides.
I know that now.
His lies became so real he started to believe them,
deceiving even himself.
His silence lies, too.
The truth won't set you free. It will destroy you.
Love is deceptive like that.
“Stop looking at me.” I fight a girlish smile, hating how I feel so stupidly giddy in his presence. I keep my eyes fixed on the oil and pastel painting of ballerinas that hangs prominently on the wall in front of us. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Phoenix simply beam back at me with that damn grin and that perfect dimple that I’ve come to love so much. I know he’s happy, but beyond that he doesn’t give much away. Actually, since we’ve moved to New York, he doesn’t give much away, period.
“What?” I goad, turning to face him.
“Nothing.” He looks back to the exhibit wall, smirking at the artwork.
“Do I have something on my face, Phoenix?”
His laugh echoes throughout the Degas exhibit room. “No, Ivy. There’s nothing wrong with your face. Your face is perfect.” He winks and then steps to the next picture in the room. It’s a gray pastel sketch of another dancer, but this one is holding a fan as her feet are turned out in some numbered position that I can’t remember.
I smile at him intently as he feigns interest. I know art isn’t his thing, but he makes it his thing. For me. He makes everything his thing for me. And it makes me love him even more.
Sigh. Slowly this man has become the world to me. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t need a man, but I feel fulfilled having him in my life. Phoenix just makes everything better.
The museum is eerily quiet tonight. My high heels echo off the marble, interrupting the silence in the wing. I lace my fingers between his as we stand shoulder to shoulder.
“I wish I had her kind of easy grace.” I rest my head against his shoulder and look at the sketch. “My parents made me take dance for a year when I was little. I hated the tutus and tights and would pitch a fit whenever they made me go.”
“I love that.”
“What? That I hated tutus?”
“No, that I learn something new about you every day.” Phoenix hums softly and lets go of my hand to wrap his arm around my waist, drawing me even closer to him. His cologne is warm and inviting. I inhale him deeply, committing his scent to memory, thankful he can’t see me do it.
“And for what it’s worth, I think you’re graceful.”
I snort as he reaches out and gently pulls my chin toward him. I’m about to tell him I’m as graceful as a Mack truck when he plants a whisper of a kiss upon my lips. Even after a thousand kisses, my heart still quivers when his lips touch mine. I like how every kiss feels like our first kiss under the stars. He likes to make each kiss special. Memorable. It’s as if he’s trying to replace all of the tainted kisses from my past with his good ones.
Phoenix withdraws, stuffs his hands in his pockets and rocks on his feet, heel to toe, over and over again. For whatever reason, he’s nervous—I think. Phoenix has been acting a little strange lately. He’s still his wonderful, charming, caring self, but his mind is clearly elsewhere. We’re closer than ever, yet he manages to keep himself at a slight distance, never letting me in completely.
He doesn’t think I notice these things. But I do.
And it drives me fucking mad.
We’ve been in New York for exactly six weeks and tonight marks our sixth date. It was Phoenix’s idea to plan an outing once a week to explore our new city together. He even made a list of all the things he wants to do and stuck it on our obnoxiously loud fridge, ceremoniously scratching each one off after each date. So far we’ve seen a musical on Broadway, gone people watching in Washington Square, ridden the Staten Island Ferry, kissed atop the Empire State Building, and pedaled our way through Central Park. Tonight we are at The Met. It’s my first time here, and I’m pretty sure I never want to leave.
Six wonderful weeks.
But through these six weeks, I’ve seen new sides of him unfold. He’s the same Phoenix I fell for, just a little more guarded. I know he has a lot on his mind between trying to patch things up with his estranged father who is dying of cancer and getting settled with his new architecture firm. Plus, I know that living with your brand new girlfriend in an apartment the size of a postage stamp can’t be easy. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something he’s not telling me.
“Why are you acting so strange?” I bump into him playfully, trying to hide the concern in my voice.
“What do you mean?” He pulls his hands from his pockets and gently holds my face, tracing his thumb over my lips.
“I don’t know, you just don’t seem like yourself lately. You’re distracted. Is everything okay?” I look at him intently, my eyes pleading to tell me what’s on his mind.
“What? I can’t kiss my girl whenever I want?”
He takes my hand and twirls me around before pulling me to his chest, swaying our bodies in a music-less dance. But his smile, his touch, his charm ... It all disarms me and I forget about his reservations and find myself wanting to fall into him further.
“No … That you can do.”
I wrap my arms around his neck to still his restless body. My eyes focus on his perfect lips, soaking in his beauty as he starts to lean in to kiss me again, but hesitates. In a brushing moment of solemnity, I can see the secrets in his eyes. I search his expression for the answers, but then he offers me the small endearing smile that I fell in love with and whatever burden plagued his mind melts away.
“I wish you could see yourself through my eyes, Ivy,” he says, tucking a loose strand of dark hair behind my ear. “We’ve been circling this place for hours now, surrounded by priceless works of art, and yet you are the only masterpiece I’ve seen in this entire museum.”
And just like that, I’m a puddle at his feet.
He always knows what to say and when. He always knows how to make me feel every indescribable emotion. He is obnoxiously perfect like that. And I couldn’t hate him for it, even if I tried. I just wish he knew that too much perfection could be a mistake.
Phoenix holds my face in his hands and rubs his thumb over my lips. I don’t dare speak and spoil the moment. Instead, I roll up on my tippy-toes and place a delicate kiss upon his lips. When I start to pull away, he pulls me closer deepening the kiss, exploring my mouth with his. Slowly, he traces his hands down my shoulders, over my arms and around my waist, his lips never leaving mine.
I am connected to this man in every way imaginable.
I swallow his groan and my head spins. Even after a thousand kisses, this never gets old. This simple display of love is so not overrated, at least with him. Kissing him has always been a heady venture. I’m drowning in his sensations.
The sweet taste of his lips …
The smell of his cologne …
The scruff of his five o’clock shadow against my skin …
I need to feel him in my veins. It’s all too easy to get lost in.
He picks me up, and I instinctively tangle my legs around his waist, hooking him closer to my body. I don’t even bother being embarrassed by the fact my dress rides up dangerously close to my ass.
My back slams against the doorframe into the room. Phoenix’s mouth and deliciously hot breath move from my lips to just below my ear, down my neck before coming to rest on my collarbone. The sensory overload sends chills up my spine.
I feel his hand lightly trail from my calf up to my thigh and tease my skin along the bottom edge of the fabric of my dress. I know exactly what he’s craving right now.
And fuck, I’m aching for it, too.
“Nu-uh,” I say, not believing the words that fall from my mouth. I gently grab his hand and move it away from my upper thigh. I roll my head back, giving him easier access and softly moan as he runs his lips back up my neck, drinking me in.
“Ivy …” Phoenix breathes as he continues his assault of tender kisses. He’s waiting for me to stop him again. Deep down, I want to grab his hand and pull him into a remote part of the museum.
Where the cameras don’t reach.
Where there’s less of a risk of getting caught.
Where I can finally ignore my nagging conscious and just lose myself in him.
I fight the urge to strip down and take him right here in public. Everything about him feels so damn good. And every last part of my body needs him in every sense of the word.
Every part of me except my head.
“Stop.” I shut my eyes tightly, instantly regretting the declaration. It always slams me from ten thousand feet in the air to the hard ground below. Don’t get me wrong—I want to. I’m just not ready to go there yet.
Life is still too raw.
Wounds not yet healed.
My mind still not at ease with how life has played out.
And yet here he stays.
One day my head, my heart, and my drive will all fall in sync. But that day is not today. I can practically hear the old Ivy in the bowels of my brain flipping her shit in frustration. But I know better. I won’t jump in deep waters so soon and wreck everything we’ve worked so hard to overcome and build.
This relationship is something I refuse to ruin. And clearly my track record of relationships driven by sex has worked out so well. I just want to build us up first before potentially complicating things further with sex.
Slowly, I unwrap my legs and Phoenix gently lowers my feet to the floor. I tug down the bottom of my dress and search his face for disappointment. He masks it well as he silently nods and then presses his forehead to mine.
“I love you, Ivy.” He says the words so softly I barely hear him, but I feel the words on his breath and the weight of his profession in every cell of my body.
I’m a shotgun loaded with emotion, desperate to pull the trigger and catapult us into unchartered territory.
I unwillingly pry myself from Phoenix and we look toward the sound to find a gray-haired man in a uniform watching us uncomfortably from a few feet away. He purses his lips and shifts his weight from foot to foot.
“The museum is closing in fifteen minutes. If you could, uh, please wrap things up and make your way back downstairs.” The security guard moves his gaze to the floor before continuing to walk through the wing.
Well, that’s just great. Had I known we were giving a show, I would have at least made it a little more exciting for everyone involved. Then again, with security being tighter than Fort Knox, it’s a wonder we weren’t interrupted sooner. Or maybe he was just watching us for that long. Ugh.
My cheeks flush scarlet and Phoenix winks at me.“C’mon, Ivy.” He places his hand in the small of my back and whisks me toward the elevators.
The sky is dark and velvety by the time we make it outside. It’s surprisingly chilly for early August, but it’s a nice reprieve from the sweltering summer nights we’ve experienced lately. A breeze sends goose bumps down my body as it rolls over my skin. Phoenix takes my hand in his and leads me down the stairs. “Are you ready to go home? Or would you rather grab a drink somewhere?”
“Nah.” I look back at The Met—it’s truly stunning when it’s lit up at night. I wish we could have stayed longer and explored the other exhibits though I’m sure Phoenix was bored a few hours ago. “Why don’t we just walk?”
He smiles his killer smile and we take off in no particular direction with no particular destination. We walk hand in hand, in silence, for a good fifteen minutes. When we stop at a crosswalk, I notice the same unsettled look in his eyes that I’ve witnessed off and on for the past few weeks. Just as I’m about to ask if something’s on his mind, he speaks.
“You know what I appreciate the most about you?”
“What’s that?” My heart flutters in anticipation of his answer.
“You make living each day easier. With you, Ivy, you let the past stay there. You allow for history to be done. ”
I know exactly what he means by this. After all, he does the same for me.
“I love you.” I give his hand a squeeze.
“I know you do. I love me, too.”
I slug him playfully in the shoulder and he just laughs. “I love you too, Ivy. More than you could ever begin to comprehend.”
The streetlight changes along with my mood and we turn in the direction of our apartment, heading home.
We really lucked out finding that apartment. It’s an older building in SoHo with archaic appliances and no elevator. The bad news is we have to schlep up three flights of stairs to get to our fourth floor apartment. But the good news is my calves have never looked better. The tiny apartment we call home is roughly the size of the walk-in closet at my parents’ house back in Chicago. We have just enough living space to not be in each other’s business all the time, just enough counter space for a coffee maker, and just enough closet space to hang up our nicer clothes.
But I love it because it’s ours.
Normally our silences are welcomed. Comfortable, even. But as we walk down Fifth Avenue, the quiet between us is unnerving. I tuck a loose strand behind my ear and slow my pace.
“You’d tell me if something were wrong, right?”
He stops walking and turns toward me. “Yeah, of course I would.” He forces a tight smile and I instantly know that he’s lying to me. It’s infuriating how we can have hundreds of miles between us and be so intimately close, but then there are moments when he’s standing right next to me and we may as well have the expanse of the sea between us.
“Really?” I ask, searching for any kind of reassurance from him. He knows he can open up to me about anything. I just wish he would.
“Yes, really.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind right now. It’s nothing you need to worry about.” He reaches out and takes my face in his hands, tracing his thumb along my jawline. Phoenix leans down to kiss me, but pauses just before our lips meet. He looks me in the eye and I feel the sadness or frustration or whatever the hell it is he’s harboring. And when his lips touch mine, I feel that same sadness in the depth of my belly.
I pull away hesitantly, my heart breaking. “Okay,” I say softly, effectively dropping the subject. I love him enough to let it go … for now.
But deep down we both know this conversation is far from over.