"It's been days and he hasn't called even once!" Stina complains to Eleanor.
"I don't understand," her friend answers, "If you wanted him to be calling you all the time, why did you break up with him? Isn't it a good thing when they actually stop bothering you when the relationship is over?"
Stina sighs loudly since Eleanor can't see her roll her eyes over the phone. "Of course you don't understand. You're frigid or whatever. But you have to do me a huge favor. Go over there tonight and find out what's going on with Gavin. His heart must be totally broken and he's just hiding it. I have to know."
"You're expecting him to burst into tears and confess his undying love for you to me?" Eleanor laughs, "I'm pretty sure that won't happen. Besides, I have no valid reason to be going over there. The rent isn't due for a week and a half."
"Well, what about that Justin guy? He likes you, right? You could totally -"
"No," Eleanor interrupts her sharply, "I have a hard enough time turning him down whenever he asks me out. I'm not going to encourage his attentions under false pretenses."
"Some friend you are," Stina grumbles.
"Look, I'm busy writing my paper for art history, and you should be writing yours. I'm hanging up now," Eleanor says, finishing the conversation.
Eleanor lied about writing her paper; she already finished it hours ago. She was just tired of listening to Stina whine about problems she brought on herself. Besides, she has a chat date she's been looking forward to all day. He calls himself WhipLash, and with him (if he is really a him), she's been able to share her deepest longings, to role play scenarios of bondage that make her heart race and her palms moist as she types them. Stina calls her 'frigid' because she's never had sex, because she refuses to date and avoids anything even remotely close to a romantic relationship. If frigid is what she is, Eleanor accepts the label readily enough. She has a vibrant relationship online with a person she's never met, one based entirely on fantasy that never intrudes on her real life. What could possibly be better than that?
"I could make all your fantasies come true, if we met in meat space," WhipLash types. Eleanor stares at the screen, her heart racing now from something other than excitement. Does she even want her fantasies to come true? she wonders. Maybe they are best kept on screen...her cursor flashes mutely as she tries to come up with a suitable response.
"I know where you live," he continues.
Eleanor logs off hurriedly, really frightened now.
She nearly jumps out of her seat when she hears the rapping at her door, and is quickly relieved to see it's just Justin.
"I didn't mean to frighten you," Justin says when she opens the door.
"It's nothing," she answers with nervous laugh, "Just... something...online," she says, fumbling for a reason for her jittery demeanor, and then giving up trying to excuse herself, continues, "What do you need?"
"I made pasta. Homemade pasta. I thought you'd like to join us for dinner tonight," Justin answers.
It's on her tongue to turn him down, as she's turned down every other invitation Justin has ever extended, but right now she's glad for any reason to be out of her house and in the company of others. 'I know where you live', she thinks. Is she being stalked, is she in danger? Were those just words, was it part of their roleplaying? Whatever the the truth is, the last place Eleanor wants to be when the sun goes down is home alone. "Sure, I'd like that," she answers with a weak smile.
While Justin cooks, Eleanor chats with Zach, their mutual landlord and Justin's housemate as well. Zach is a graduate student in physics at UCLA, and the owner of this house and the guest cottage Eleanor rents, property he inherited from the maiden aunt who took him in when his parents died.
Eleanor has never eaten here before, but she's heard from Stina and Gavin and even from Zach, who she mostly only sees when the rent is due, that Justin is an exemplary chef. Though the meal is just spaghetti, both the pasts and sauce are homemade, and Eleanor is surprised by how good a simple meal can taste.
"Gavin isn't here tonight," she comments over dinner. Since she's here, she might as well do some snooping for Stina, she thinks.
"No, he's out," Zach answers, "On a date? I think that's what he said." Zach shakes his head and stares off into a spot behind Eleanor's head, "Or maybe that something he said last week. Anyway, he isn't here now."
After dinner, Eleanor helps Justin clean up the dishes. When that chore is done, she left with no reason to linger on in the house, and a dread of returning to her cottage.
"Are you okay?" Justin asks, sensing her edginess.
"I'm fine," Eleanor lies.
Justin can tell she's lying, and she's nowhere near fine. Fear emanates from her in waves, she's trying to hide her trembling from him, but he sees it.
Romance is a foreign language, courtship is something he's never understood or engaged in, but fear is part of his stock in trade, a tool he knows how to use. Fear has made her vulnerable, fear has created this moment for him, and Justin seizes the moment to touch his lips to hers, taste her tongue and breathe her breath.
In that moment, Eleanor forgets her fear, forgets to analyze and assess and just feels the sheer physicality of the kiss, of his body pressed to hers, his hands gripping her back. She'd had a few fumbling, disappointing kisses in high school, but nothing she's ever experienced has come even close to this kind of exhilaration.