He answered the door in boxer shorts and a long sleeved t-shirt. He pushed back the hair covering most of his face, one eye closed, the other one squinting.
"Hey," he said. "Nice to see you."
She felt pleased because it sounded like he meant it.
Her intention was to ask him how he'd been doing, if he was okay and what the hell was that thing with Chambers, but before she knew it, she was telling him about her day of fun and the kiss. How she wasn't sure if it was Stuart's fault or hers that it didn't quite live up to expectation.
"I mean, I know life isn't like a movie, but shouldn't the first kiss have something special about it? Or am I just being silly?" She was sitting on the sofa, feeling overdressed.
"Hold on. Did you come here for dating advice?" Neil, seated on the dining chair over by the electric fire, covered his eyes with a hand and shook his head. "I don't know how to break this to you, but I've never had a girlfriend and never kissed anyone. I've never even been bowling."
Susan pushed herself off the sofa and walked over to him. She grabbed his wrist and forcibly undid the facepalm, bending down to be level with his look of surprise. "Who do you think you're kidding? I doubt there's any subject you don't have an opinion on, whether you have personal experience of it or not. You sit there, pretending to read that stupid book, watching what everyone's doing and how they're doing it. Feel quite pleased with yourself, don't you? Putting two and two together and coming up with four."
Neil's expression evolved from surprise to shock to amazement. "What makes you think I'm pretending—"
"Might be more convincing if you turned the page once in awhile."
Neil opened his mouth to say something, but Susan cut in first.
"And if you're about to say some cliched shit about the student becoming the master, I may be forced to slap you."
She let go of his wrist, took three steps backwards and sat back down on the sofa. Neil's face had moved on to a new expression, one she hadn't seen before. He smiled and sighed at the same time. Oh right, that's what it was. Defeat.
"All this time," said Neil, "is it possible you've been letting me think I was the one calling the shots? Have you been toying with me, Susan? Was it all an elaborate ruse to get me to do what you wanted?"
"Don't worry," said Susan, "you're the only one sick and twisted enough to come up with topless maths lessons. It's all you, I'm just playing catch up. Now, tell me what you think about Stuart."
Neil took a deep breath and the irritating glint in his eyes returned. "You're overthinking it. You're sixteen. You don't have to find someone to spend the rest of your life with. Someone you can spend a Saturday afternoon with is fine. So what if his kisses are a bit too enthusiastic? Maybe it'll get better, maybe not. Just have some fun and see how it goes."
"That's easy to say, have some fun, but what does that mean? Have fun how? How do you make kissing fun if it isn't fun already?"
"Have you never fantasized about what it would be like to kiss someone you liked? All the different things you could do?"
"No," said Susan. "Why would I torture myself like that?"
"Fine. Borrow one of mine. Next time you see Stuart, in a break or after class, say, 'Hey, can I have a quick word?' He'll agree to that, right? Then take him somewhere quiet where there's nobody around, like the stairs in the art block where all those cardboard boxes are piled up. Somewhere like that. And when you're behind the boxes, under the stairs or wherever, say, 'Can I have a kiss?' Chances are he'll agree to that, too. So you kiss him, but if he starts getting a bit too revved up, pull back and act like someone's coming. When the coast's clear, kiss him again, and stop and hide and kiss some more. And when you've had enough, say, 'Thanks very much,' and leave."
"I see. And why am I doing all this?"
"Because it'll make him happy. Which will make you happy."
"Are you sure?"
"It would make me happy, so yeah, I'm pretty sure."
Susan's phone rang. "Speak of the devil. Hey, Stuart, hi."
They started chatting like they were already in the middle of a conversation. Ten minutes later, she finally got off the phone. Neil was on his computer playing solitaire.
"Sorry about that. Seems like I got invited to a party."
"Oh, yes? A rave?"
"No, at Rachel's house. Her parents are away for the weekend."
"Oh, right. Well, be careful."
"What does that mean?"
"Nothing. I'm just saying take care."
"What do you mean why? It'll be him and his mates, and you. They'll engineer a way for you two to be alone together..."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing. But he'll be all excited and eager and sometimes a guy can get carried away, especially if he's had half a can of Stella and his friends have told him to go for it."
"He's not like that."
Neil tilted his head at her. She recognised the look from when she would confidently start a maths problem and the angle of his face would say, are you sure?
"I'm not trying to freak you out," said Neil. "If you both want the same thing at the same time, I'm sure that's a wonderful feeling. But when you really, desperately want something, and it's so close you can nearly touch it and then it gets taken away from you... it's a very difficult thing to deal with. I'm not saying anything bad's going to happen, but if you do, for whatever reason, have to say no to him, you might have to deal with a kid having a tantrum. Anyway, I don't know what I'm talking about." He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. "It'll probably be Cards Against Humanity and pizza."
Susan thought of Neil arguing with Mr Chambers in class. Was that him throwing a tantrum? From what she knew of his family situation, he'd already had everything taken away from him.
"I appreciate the concern, Neil. I'm just wondering where you got the idea I was going to say no to him."
"That's true," said Neil. "You've never said no to me."
"Fuck you," said Susan, fighting back a laugh. She didn't want to undermine the air of superiority she'd managed to cultivate. "I've said no to you loads of times, you horrible, disgusting pervert. If there's anyone I should watch out for, it's you. He's like a saint compared to you. Oh, you're so infuriating. I'm leaving."
He walked her home, with her hurling abuse at him the whole way.
Even though she didn't believe it would work, Susan put Neil's plan into action on Monday. She found Stuart at lunchtime and asked him if she could speak to him in private. He readily agreed. It turned out to be a longer walk to the art block than she remembered and he kept asking what was going on. She grabbed him by the hand and dragged him along.
As they entered the foyer, a teacher came down the stairs carrying an easel. Susan pulled Stuart to the side, pretending to show him one of the terrible pieces hanging on the wall. A woman in a bikini with a horse's head. Well done, Salvador Jr. Once the teacher had gone, she shoved Stuart under the stairs and pushed him down behind the boxes.
She leaned closer. "Can I have a kiss?"
He didn't need to be asked twice. The way they were crouching made it difficult to get any purchase, so the kisses were hesitant and short. She liked them a lot more this way. Eventually, he managed to hold himself steady enough to get his tongue fully extended in her mouth. She pulled back and put a finger to her lips. "Shhh. I think I heard someone." She peered over the cardboard boxes meerkat-style, then ducked back down. "All clear." They started kissing again.
She repeated this routine a couple of times. Once there actually was a group of year nines, who ran up the stairs making whooping noises. After their third kiss, Susan said, "Okay, thanks. See you later," and ran off, leaving him there. She turned before exiting the building. He was standing by the stairs looking baffled but with a huge grin on his face.
She considered telling Neil his suggestion had worked but decided against it. There was no way she was going to tell the smug bastard he'd been right.
On Friday, they had their usual surprise test. She could tell she didn't do all that well. To be expected since she no longer had the benefit of Neil's tutelage. She had also slacked off considerably since Stuart had appeared. Still, maybe she didn't have to excel in every subject.
The party was due to start at 8 PM. She'd bought a brand new outfit for the occasion, teased out her hair and wore make-up for the first time in ages. She arrived at around 7.45 to a warm welcome from the host.
A little after 11.30 she was ringing Neil's doorbell, her face stained with tears and her new silk shirt ripped with half the buttons missing.
Neil opened the door and said, "Shouldn't you be out having the time of your life?"
Susan had stopped crying about ten minutes earlier. She thought it was all out of her system. Apparently not.
"This is all your fault, you bastard," was what she meant to say, but what came out was a long string of vowels accompanied by an undulating waaah sound, followed by a fresh flood of tears.
Neil grabbed the cuff of her coat sleeve and pulled her inside, kicking the door closed. He led her into the lounge. She spluttered and staggered along behind him.
"You ruined... everything," she said in between large, heaving breaths. "You're a ... jinx."
The lounge was cold. He slid her coat over her shoulders and let it drop to the floor. Then he pushed her down onto the sofa and pulled the duvet up around her. As he was about to wrap her up completely, he stopped. His hand reached in and touched her torn shirt.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, the mocking tone no longer present.
"Of course I'm not okay," she wailed. "Do I look okay?"
He placed a hand on her cheek—the chill of it gave her a jolt—and tilted her face up. At first she thought he was angry, but it wasn't anger, it was fear.
"Susan, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," said Susan, reining in her voice. "He didn't do anything." Typical. She had come all this way so he could comfort her, and the first thing he made her do was comfort him.
"Okay, then." He closed her up in the duvet, turned on the electric fire, and landed on the dining chair with a bump. "Don't suppose you brought me a party bag"
She buried her face deeper into the duvet. "Why, Neil, why?"
"I don't know exactly what you're asking me, but I'm guessing the answer's, because he's a sixteen year old boy."
"As soon as we kissed he went crazy." Recalling the memory brought the tears back to her eyes. "He was on top of me, trying to get in my blouse, shoving his tongue down my throat, all at the same time."
"Where was this? In front of everyone?"
"No, of course it wasn't in front of everyone. We were upstairs in the guest bedroom."
"I see. How did he get you up there?"
"He didn't. I suggested it. Well, actually, you're the one who put the idea in my head, so, technically, you suggested it."
"Christ," said Neil. "I should learn to keep my mouth shut."
Susan pulled the duvet over her head and pinched it tight under her chin. "It wasn't so bad, at first. We sat on the edge of the bed. We flirted. My heart was going badump badump. And then it was like a starter pistol went off. Urgh." She made fists full of duvet. "I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe. Every time I tried to tell him to stop, his tongue went in further. I didn't expect it to be perfect, but it was so uncomfortable. All I wanted was for him to slow down, to relax, but it was like he was on a mission. I couldn't stand it. I had to get him off me, so I pushed him." She leaned back, staring up at the ceiling, and let out a regretful breath. "I pushed him so hard he went flying and ended up flat on his back on the floor."
"It wasn't funny, Neil. He looked so sad. I thought if we took a break, calmed down, we could still make it work, somehow, maybe. I went to go to the bathroom to sort myself, but he must have thought I was leaving and grabbed my hand. He was on his knees, holding my hand, telling me he really liked me and that I'm special and beautiful and it started to piss me off because clearly he was going to say whatever, do whatever to get what he wanted. So then I really was ready to leave. I shook him off and headed for the door, but he got there first and wouldn't let me out and said, 'Susan, I love you.'"
"I said, 'Get out of my way, Stuart, or I'm going to scream.' He looked really panicked when I said that. And then he put his hand over my mouth."
"I snapped. I had no idea what he planned to do next. Probably nothing. I didn't care. I punched him as hard as I could in the balls."
"Yesss!" Neil threw his arms in the air.
"It was awful. He just lay there, not moving. I couldn't even hear him breathing. I thought I'd killed him."
Suddenly, Neil was next to Susan on the sofa, wrapping his arms around her cocoon, pulling her head into his chest. She felt his breath against her ear as he whispered, "You did brilliant." Then he let go, and jumped back to his chair. "Sorry. Being hugged by some bloke probably isn't what you need right now."
The ache in Susan's chest had disappeared. The tightness in her jaw and across her shoulders was gone, too. Apparently, being hugged by some bloke was exactly what she needed right now.
"When I opened the door, they were all standing there. They'd been listening the whole time. They saw Stuart on the floor, crying, and they started shouting at me, like I was the problem. Nobody asked me if I was okay. Nobody cared about me. I tried to leave, but they wouldn't let me go, they kept grabbing me and pulling me back, telling me to apologise. That's how my shirt got ripped.
"I couldn't take anymore. I grabbed a vase and smashed it on the floor. Rachel said, 'Oh my God, do you know how expensive that was?' and I said, 'Don't worry, tell your parents to call me, and I'll explain exactly how it happened.' That shut her up.
"Then I got out of there. I ran away as fast as I could and kept running until I got here. So I could tell you this is all your fault." As she finished her story, the last of Susan's energy drained away and her voice faded to a whisper. "Why did you have to ruin everything?"
"I hate you." She yawned.
"Can I stay here tonight?"
She fell sideways and as soon as her head hit the sofa cushion she was asleep.
When she woke, the room was dark, although early morning light crept in around the curtains. She was lying on her side, her toes poking out the end of the duvet. He had taken off her boots. Neil sat on the floor, his back resting against the sofa. His laptop was on the coffee table and he was playing some crappy browser game. Had he been up all night, watching over her?
She worked her arm out from the duvet and felt an urge to reach out and stroke his hair, but slapped him on the back of the head instead.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"Checking to see if you're awake."
"Well, if I wasn't before..." He rubbed the back of his head. "Aren't your parents going to be wondering where you are?"
"They think I'm staying over at Rachel's."
"Ah. You were always planning to spend the night with him. The idiot. If only he'd been more patient."
"I don't think it would've made a difference. It never felt right. I didn't expect it to be magical, but it was more like how I used to feel before one of Chambers' Friday tests. Still, would have been nice to get it out of the way."
"Not much of a romantic are you, Susan?"
"It's not that I'm against romance, it's just that I don't know when I'll get the opportunity again. I assume you have no food in the house."
"You assume correctly. Do you have any money?"
"Well, then, let's go have breakfast."
He took her to a small cafe around the corner. They ordered full English breakfasts laden with grease and fat. Susan didn't care. She devoured the lot. Neil matched her bite for bite. She wondered how long it had been since he'd had a proper meal.
"What are you going to say when you see him?" asked Neil.
"I'm not going to say anything. I doubt we'll be hanging out much anymore."
"He's a dumb kid, but even he'll have figured out he made a mistake. He'll probably try to apologise."
"If he's really sorry, I'll forgive him."
"Most people, when they apologise, they want permission to pretend it never happened. And if it never happened, then they didn't do anything wrong. They aren't really sorry, they're just trying their hardest to avoid being punished."
"So, if he does come to tell me he's sorry, I should punish him?"
"I'm saying you have that right."
"What if I don't want to punish him?"
Neil shrugged. "Maybe you don't deserve the apology."
"It's not like he's the only one to blame."
Neil loaded up his fork with the last few items on his plate. "That's true. You did go up there with him. You at least owed him a handjob, right? Let's hope the next girl behaves more reasonably and gives him what he wants." He put the whole lot in his mouth and slid out a naked fork.
Susan put down her knife and fork on an empty plate and glared at Neil until he lifted his eyes to meet hers.
"I know you're just making a point, but you can be a little harsh sometimes."
"Sorry," said Neil through half-eaten food. He swallowed it down. "Don't have much practice with these kinds of conversations. I'm not the most sensitive of people."
You fucking liar, Susan thought.
After they'd eaten, he walked her home. He stopped at the end of her road and let her walk the last bit on her own. When she reached her front garden gate she looked back. He was still standing there, waiting for her to go in.
Monday morning, first period, maths. People were taking their seats, milling around, waiting for Mr Chambers to turn up. Rachel sat three desks ahead of Susan, tapping away on her phone, avoiding looking in Susan's direction. Then she turned towards the open door. Susan followed her gaze, but there was no one there.
A second later, Stuart appeared, pale and jittery. He exchanged a look with Rachel, but walked past her, headed for Susan.
"Susan, I... wanted to say sorry, about the other night. I didn't mean to upset you." He spoke quickly and quietly.
Susan looked over at Neil, who had his book open at the usual place. He lifted his hand to his mouth and licked a finger, which he used to slowly turn the page. For some reason that made her want to smile.
"I don't want you to think I was going to do anything. I mean I really like you, but I would never..."
"Don't worry, Stuart," said Susan, turning her attention back to him, feeling a little sorry for the shaking boy standing in front of her. "I think you're an idiot, not a rapist."
He flinched when she said the word.
"But you were well out of order and I deserve an apology, a proper one, don't you think? I mean, if you're really sorry, that is."
"I am." He lowered his head. "I'm really sorry."
"Okay. Then what I want from you, by way of an apology, is to listen to me for two minutes. Can you do that?"
"Good. Nobody cares how you feel, Stuart. Nobody cares if you've been treated unfairly or misunderstood. It doesn't matter how much you like someone or how much you want to be with them. The only thing that matters is that if a girl tells you to stop, you stop. If you have a better idea, nobody gives a shit.
"Even though you would never hurt her, even though all you want is a chance to show her how much you care, even though you're only covering her mouth with your hand so she'll be quiet long enough to hear you say you love her, nobody gives a fuck.
"Next time a girl says stop, you're going to stop. That's how you're going to show me you're genuinely sorry, right?"
"Yes," whispered Stuart.
"Okay. Then I accept your apology."
Stuart turned and left, not looking at Rachel who had been following the conversation with mouth hanging open. She caught Susan's eye for a second and turned around quickly.
Susan doubted Neil would consider what she'd done much of a punishment, but she didn't see the point of making someone suffer as a way to make amends. Better to make sure they didn't do it again.
Mr Chambers came storming in and started handing out Friday's test results. The paper that landed on her desk said sixty-four percent. It was her worst mark in some time. She really needed to get back into studying.
After school. Susan turned up at Neil's door. She hadn't arranged a session with him, but felt confident they could come to an arrangement
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Neil asked her.
Susan was already down to her bra and panties. "Yes. I can't let my grades slip. What do you want in return? The usual?"
"Sure, the usual. Plus, I want to touch and kiss your breasts."
Neil exploded. "What do you mean, fine?"
"What are you getting so mad about? You're the one who suggested it."
"I suggested it because I like it when you scream and shout at me. I didn't think you'd agree to it! Is your self-esteem really so low you'd allow anyone to grope you?"
"That's not what—"
"Things didn't work out with one guy, that doesn't mean you should give up and let all comers have a go."
"Honestly, Susan, after what happened, I'd think you'd be a little more—"
"Will you shut up for one second and listen to me? My self-esteem is fine. I'm not going to start letting anyone and everyone do what they want to me. I said yes because it's you. I want you to do those things to me. If you hadn't suggested it yourself, I would've had to come up with a plan, which would have gone horribly wrong, so good job, I agree to your terms. Not anyone, just you. Understand?"
"Oh," said Neil. "I see. Are you sure you've got the right person?"
"You're the only horrible, disgusting pervert I know. It would be hard to mistake you for anyone else."
Neil sat on the chair and looked at the computer, which wasn't on. He stood up, looked around for something he apparently couldn't find, and then sat down again. "So, your test results were kind of terrible, huh? I guess we should get started."
Susan smiled. He was cute when he was flustered. Cute for a pervert, that is. "Neil, have you really never kissed a girl before?"
"Nope," said Neil. "Never."
Susan took off her bra. "Then let's make your first time worth the wait."