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Pushing the Limits(3)

By:Brooke Cumberland

"What do you mean?"

"Guys like the chase. If you're an easy target, it's not a challenge."

The corner of her lips wrinkles in disgust.

"Play hard to get," I explain.

She scoffs. "Why do guys always want to play stupid games? I'm your  girlfriend … you've got me! Now, do me!" She shouts to the ceiling of my  car.

"Rather, do that." I laugh and point at her pathetic plea. "That'll have him ripping your clothes off in a heartbeat."         



She glares at me, and I smirk.

I park in front of the Waffle House and we walk inside, finding Zoe in one of the corner booths.

"Look who finally decided to show up after all," Zoe taunts in her  thick, New Jersey accent as we both shift into our chairs. She has her  long, dark mane pulled up into a high bun, a few shorter pieces falling  around her face.

Zoe moved to California three years ago when she turned eighteen to  pursue a singing career. After rejection after another, and eventually  going broke, she moved up to Berkeley, found Kendall to live with, and  started working at one of the bars downtown.

She says it's only until she figures out what she wants to do long-term.

But I think fear is setting her back more than anything.

"Oh, please. We're thirty seconds late."

"I managed to get off, showered, dressed, and arrive before the both of you. I deserve some kind of medal for that."

I snort. "You get the bill. There's your medal."

"Ooh … apparently someone had a bad Saturday night."

"It was fine." I narrow my eyes. "Kendall's the one stuck in make-out city," I tease, earning a glare in return.

The waitress arrives with glasses of water and asks if we want our  usual. We say yes, handing her back the menus. We order the same things  every time.

I sip on my iced latte, glaring at Zoe's pleased smirk. "So was this guy  a keeper?" I ask referring to the guy that she brought home last night.

She shrugs carelessly. "Maybe. But if we get married, I'm keeping my surname."

A wide smile spreads across both Kendall's face and mine. "Why?" we ask in unison.

She frowns. "Because he has a horrible last name." I raise my brows,  silently motioning for her to tell us. "It's Litoris." She hangs her  head in shame as the both of us burst out laughing.

"I'm sorry," I say in between trying to catch my breath. "But that can't be true."

"It is! I even Googled him."

"Dude, that's unfortunate," Kendall adds. "But if he ever runs for  Senate, I'll be sure to vote for Mr. Litoris." That cracks us up even  more as Zoe shakes her head and scowls.

"Laugh all you want." She groans. "But his tongue is definitely nothing to laugh at."

"I bet not." I smile, biting down on my lower lip to hold in the laughter at her embarrassment.

The waitress arrives with our food shortly after, and we start a new  topic of conversation, one that doesn't cause lack of air from laughing  too hard.

"So your mom wants you to come home for spring break this year," Kendall asks once we begin eating. "You going?"

I keep my head down and shrug. "I don't know. I really don't want to."

"How pissed will she be if you don't go?" Zoe asks.

"Probably pissed enough to never talk to me again, which just might be  enough of a reason to not go in the first place." I smirk, knowing  they'll understand what I mean. My parents and I never really mended our  relationship after Ari's death. It was just kind of there … not moving or  evolving. Once I graduated high school, I couldn't wait to move away.

"You know they have coffee here," Zoe says, eyeing my Starbucks cup and  changing the subject. She knows I hate talking about my family.

"Gah! What is it with you two? I do know." I grab it and pull the straw  into my mouth before setting it back down. "But they don't have it the  way I like it."

"Filled with caramel and sugar?" Kendall laughs.

"I live on four hours or less of sleep every night. Caramel and sugar are the only things that keep my eyes open."

Kendall lets out an audible sigh. "I'd feel sorry for you, but the fact  that you have more strange men doing the walk of shame every weekend  than I have pairs of shoes, I don't feel sorry at all."

"Stop exaggerating," I retort as Zoe begins to laugh. "It's not every  weekend. And sometimes they only get to third base, thank you very  much."

"What's your definition of third base?" Zoe asks, narrowing her eyes at me.

"No penetration," I answer matter-of-factly.

Zoe snorts.

We continue talking and eating. If it weren't for these two, I'd feel  really lost-more than I already feel. They're the closest thing I have  to any kind of healthy relationship, even though they don't really know  all of me. They know what I show and tell them, but most of the time,  they see what I want them to see. Not the inside that's burning with  unbearable pain and guilt. But they get more than I give anyone else,  and sometimes I even find myself thinking of them like sisters-that is  until the guilt eats at me.         




I never expected to be back in California after the way I left five  years ago. I hadn't even come back to visit my parents, and thinking  back on it makes me feel like absolute shit. However, six months ago, I  said goodbye to Ohio and moved back to my home state.

Not by choice.

Fortunately, I found a house to rent close to the California School of  Liberal Arts where I was able to get a teaching job. I had to leave Ohio  without much notice, so once I arrived back home and secured a job, I  had four months left until I started at CSLA. Between unpacking and  prepping my semester syllabuses, those four months flew by. I did  everything I could to ignore the ache in my chest at being back in the  same town as her-Jennifer-one of the reasons I left in the first place.  Everything to ignore the pain and focus on something else-anything else.

Natalia is the other reason those months flew by. She's my high  demanding and sarcastic eleven-year-old niece who's complained about my  cooking every night since she moved in with me.

She's also taught me a lot in the time she's lived with me.

Eleven-year-old girls do not like when you walk them into the school  building. They also don't like when you kneel down to tie their shoe.  They also may possibly scream when you walk into the bathroom-forgetting  you, in fact, do not live alone anymore-and they are only in a towel.

Oh, the things I've had to quickly learn to accommodate Natalia.

But I love her. I wouldn't be here if I didn't.

And we're trying to figure it out-even though we're both grieving.

My heart aches at the memory of getting the call six months ago. My  mother was so hysterical that I could barely understand anything she was  saying. Once they translated into actual words, the walls began to  close in on me. I was in shock. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I  couldn't breathe.

Six months later, and I still feel that way, except now I've learned to  ignore it. The pain stings to the point of bitterness. Bitter that it  happened. Bitter that I had to come back. Bitter that I have no idea how  to raise a child.

Painting is my solace or was at least. I haven't been able to paint a  damn thing since then, which is really fucking ironic since I'm an art  professor. But what choice do I have? I need a job and it's the only  thing I know. But if there's one thing I know about the power of  painting is when you need it most, it'll eventually pull you out of  whatever shit you're dealing with-or so that's what I'm hoping for  anyway.

"Knock, knock," I hear from my doorway. I quickly look up and notice  it's Claire-again. She's been coming to my office every day for two  weeks as I've been rapidly trying to prepare for my classes that are  resuming soon. Since I'm coming in halfway through the year at spring  semester, I've been looking over students' art portfolio's to get ideas  of their strong suits so I can coordinate my syllabus to their needs.

"Hi, Claire," I draw out slowly, the annoyance in my tone going right over her head as she invites herself in. "What's up?"

She settles in on the chair across from my desk. Her skin-tight pencil  skirt nearly rips in two as she crosses her legs and arches her back,  pushing her breasts firm against her thin blouse. She flips her blonde  hair, exposing the flesh of her neck. I shudder, wondering what's made  this woman so insecure that she feels the need to throw herself at me.

"Well, I thought since you've been working nonstop and have hardly taken  a break to even eat lunch most days, we could go out for drinks  tonight." Her tongue runs along her lower lip just before pulling it in  between her teeth and biting it. "Celebrate your new job and the start  of a fresh semester," she continues with an encouraging smile.

"As much as I'd love that … " She doesn't hear the condescending tone in  my voice by the wide, girly smile that spreads across her face. "I'll  have to take a raincheck. I'm taking Natalia to a movie tonight before I  get busy with work again." It's a lie, but she doesn't even as much as  flinch on another rejection. She's only asked me out a dozen times, and  I've found a way to get out of each of them.