Authors: Megan Nugen Isbell
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
Megan Nugen Isbell
For my M.E.S. friends for always believing in me.
And especially Beth. Keeping pretending you’re Nat.
“I thought you had this thing looked at before we left,” I said, sitting up in the passenger seat to adjust the knobs on the air conditioner in the old red Jeep. Ethan had had it for as long as I’d known him. On the outside, one would assume it was just some hunk of junk, but for Ethan and I, we’d had so many good times driving around Iowa in this Jeep. That was just a memory now. Iowa was behind us and it appeared so was the air conditioning. As soon as we’d crossed the state line into Pennsylvania, the air, which had been practically freezing out the car, began spurting out bursts of warmth.
“I did look at it, Natalie. You know I did. I looked at it, my dad looked at it,” Ethan said, shooing my hand away. “It’s fine. We’re almost there, so don’t worry about it, okay?”
I gave Ethan a sideways glace, unsure if he was really annoyed or just trying to pacify me.
“Remind me again why I agreed to this?” I asked him, raising an eyebrow, which I was certain he didn’t see. The traffic was picking up now and his eyes were more focused on the road than they’d been the whole thousand mile trip.
“Because you wanted to have the experience of a lifetime and you couldn’t bear to see me leave.”
“You never would’ve done this if I hadn’t agreed to come along.”
“You’re probably right,” he said, tearing his eyes away from the road just enough to grab me and kiss me playfully on the cheek.
I turned my head and could see he was focused fully on the road now. Most of the trip had been relaxing, but the farther east we got, the more attentive he had to be. God forbid he actually let me drive at all. The few times he did, all he did was criticize me anyway. I knew it was better just to leave it to him.
The traffic seemed to be swarming the Jeep and our small U-Haul and I noticed Ethan’s knuckles gripping the steering wheel more tightly. I never recalled him holding the steering wheel that hard back in Cedar Rapids. If I didn’t know better, I might think he was actually nervous. Then I saw why.
My eyes focused back onto the highway and as Ethan accelerated to keep up with the other cars, he eased around a bend and I saw it: the skyline I’d only ever seen in movies. The pictures on the screen could never have done it justice. It went on forever. I’d never seen so many tall buildings and it finally hit me. We’d left behind everything we’d known in Iowa for New York City.
“Are you crazy?”
I could still hear my mother’s words when I told my family Ethan and I were moving to New York. I’d never forget the look on her face when the words came out of my mouth. I’d never seen a look quite like it and I knew she thought I’d lost my mind. My father had remained quiet and my younger brother laughed from the living room where he was playing Xbox.
I probably was crazy. Ethan and I were probably both crazy. We had to be to pack up and move to one of the busiest cities in the world with only $500 to our name. Ethan had flown to New York and found us an apartment, spending practically everything we had on first and last month’s rent plus the security deposit. He assured me everything would be fine. We’d both find jobs and everything would work out. Ethan had majored in audio/visual in college and he wanted to work on Broadway or somewhere in New York in the theatre. His dream had always been to work in New York and I wanted to be part of his dream.
He promised we’d only be poor for a little while. I knew he just said it to make me feel better, but I liked to believe him. It’d be an adventure anyway. He seemed so positive and he hadn’t stopped smiling since we’d left Iowa. I was more apprehensive though. Always had been, which is why moving to New York was all that more surprising. My parents had always assumed I’d graduate college, get a steady job, marry and settle down. I’d graduated college, but that was about it on their list. This move across the country had never been in their plan for me.
“How much longer?” I asked. I was anxious to see the apartment in person. Truthfully, I was a little scared. It hadn’t looked like much in the pictures he’d shown me. The monthly rent made me want to throw up. The $1800 we’d be paying for our one bedroom on the Upper East Side still made me nauseous.
“Natalie, please,” Ethan sighed, his eyes focused intently on the road. “I need to concentrate.”
He was definitely tense. If his white knuckles weren’t a dead giveaway, his sharp tone was and I sunk down in my seat and remained quiet the rest of the way. Even if Ethan had wanted to talk, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to. As we got further and further into the city, I found my face glued to the window, staring up at all the buildings. In my twenty-two years on this planet, I’d never seen anything like it. Up until now, the biggest city I’d ever been to was Chicago, and while it was impressive, it couldn’t hold a candle to what I was seeing now. Maybe it was the fact that it was New York City or maybe it was the fact that this was my new home. The furthest I’d ever lived from home was the four years in Iowa City during college and that was just a half an hour away. I could go home whenever I wanted. This was definitely not the case now and I couldn’t be more excited. I reached over and grabbed Ethan’s knee, unable to contain my excitement any longer. He ripped his eyes from the road for a second, seeing the grin spread across my face.
“You okay?” he asked, looking back at the road. He was more relaxed now. We weren’t zipping through traffic anymore. Instead, we were in bumper to bumper traffic in the heart of Manhattan.
“I’m just so excited,” I beamed. He grinned back and then linked his fingers with mine, pulling the back of my hand to his lips and kissing it.
Ethan was fumbling with the keys as we stood on the stoop and I couldn’t help but feel like a fish out of water as I looked around at the people passing by on the street. They all looked so with it. They all looked like they belonged. I was certain they were all aware Ethan and I didn’t belong. I shifted my weight onto my other leg and folded my arms, doing my best to fake it. I had a feeling I’d be doing a lot of that now.
“There. I got it,” Ethan said a moment later, turning the key and pushing the door open. We walked into the dim hall, each holding a suitcase. The door closed behind us and I stared with wide eyes at my new home. The hallway was eerily quiet compared to the parade of sirens and bustle outside.
“This is it,” Ethan said, his voice echoing off the bare beige walls.
There were a line of doors on either side and a staircase straight ahead.
“Upstairs. C’mon,” Ethan said. I gripped the suitcase and followed him up the narrow steps. I couldn’t help but think how dingy it all seemed and a pit in my stomach started to take over as I was suddenly filled with fear and doubt. I hadn’t known what to expect, but it wasn’t this dark hallway and dank walls. Perhaps it would be better inside.
At the top of the stairs I continued to follow Ethan until he stopped at the end of the hallway and started fumbling with the keys again.
“You ready?” he asked, looking over to me. I nodded and he turned the knob. The door creaked open and he stepped back, motioning for me to enter first. I was nervous to look inside. The pictures he’d shown me didn’t look too bad, but after seeing the bleakness of the hallway, I was nervous to see the apartment in person. I took a deep breath and stepped inside.
My eyes slowly looked around and then I breathed a sigh of relief.
“So, whaddya think?” Ethan asked, sliding his arm around my waist after closing the door.
“It’s great,” I said quietly, taking it all in. The back wall was made of red brick and there were dark wood beams overhead. A small living room attached to an even smaller kitchen. I could see the doorway to the bedroom near the kitchen and the bathroom was at the end of the hall. It amazed me how much was packed into such a little space. The whole apartment could’ve fit in the living room of my parents’ house back in Cedar Rapids. The size didn’t matter though. I loved it and was already thinking about cute ways to decorate it.
“Really? You like it,” Ethan asked and I could hear nerves in his voice.
“I love it,” I said, turning to him and throwing my arms around him in a bear hug. “I really love it.”
“I was worried you’d hate it,” he said as I pulled back and stared into his deep brown eyes.
“To be honest, I was afraid I would too,” I told him and he laughed a little, looking down at the ground before meeting his eyes with mine again.
“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you. I know it’s not much, but it won’t always be like this,” he said and I could tell he was worried. Ethan hadn’t seemed to waiver once we made the decision to come here, but I could see fear in his eyes now. I reached up, resting my palm against his cheek and giving him the best encouraging smile I could.
“Everything is perfect right now.” It was quiet for a few seconds and I watched as he seemed to relax a little. I knew he was afraid of letting me down. If it was just him, he wouldn’t have minded, but he wanted me to be happy. I wished he knew I already was.
“Can you believe we’re really here? That we really did it?” I asked, taking his hands.
“Actually, I can’t,” he said, smiling that nervous smile again. “It’s kinda crazy, isn’t it?”
“Completely,” I said and we both laughed before he pulled me to him.
“It’s gonna be great, Nat,” he said softly in my ear as he held me. “I’m so glad you’re here with me. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it if you hadn’t agreed to come.”
“Well, I couldn’t let you leave me behind in Iowa while you were off having the time of your life in New York City.”
“It wouldn’t be the time of my life without you,” he said, pulling back and smiling the same smile that had sucked me in when we’d first met at the University of Iowa. He’d been just as impossible to resist then as he was now.
I reached up and ran my hands through his thick brown hair, watching as it fell back onto his forehead, before taking his face in my hands and kissing him for the first time in our new home.
“I love you, Ethan.”
“I love you too, Natalie,” he said, staring back at me and it finally hit me. After four years, we were beginning our new life together. Living together. Starting over in New York City. Iowa was our past and New York was our future and I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow would bring.
“So, what are we going to do on our first full day in New York?” I asked the next morning as we lay in bed. I was curled up next to Ethan, my head resting on his chest as he gently stroked my shoulder with his fingertips. His eyes were closed and he looked content and peaceful. His hair was a mess and I reached up and brushed it off his forehead as he opened his eyes and grinned down at me.
“I’ve gotta find a job,” he laughed.
“Can’t it wait another day? We haven’t seen any of the city yet.”
Ethan turned on one side, propping himself up with his elbow as I did the same so we were facing each other.
“$500 isn’t going to last long, Nat,” he said with a smile, but as I looked into his dark eyes, I could tell he was serious. I felt my mouth form into a slight frown as I realized my hopes for a fun day in New York City were dashed. “Hey,” he said, raising my chin so our eyes met again. “Tonight. I promise. We’ll go out to dinner, okay?” I was still frowning but when he leaned down and gently brushed his lips with mine, I couldn’t help but smile and nod.
He grinned sweetly, kissing me again and pulling the covers back as he climbed out of bed. I pulled the blankets tighter around myself as I watched him walk out of the room. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his tan skin and lean muscles and the way his boxers hung on his waist and I was disappointed when he left. I flipped over onto my back, staring up at the ceiling and when I heard the water turn on in the shower, I figured it was time for me to get up as well.
When my feet hit the hardwood floors, I was surprised at how cold it was and I quickly went to find a pair of socks. I scoured the suitcase until I finally found a pair and slid them on my feet. I looked around the room and cringed at the mess it already was. The whole apartment was a mess. We’d spent the day before unloading the U-Haul. I didn’t think we’d brought that much stuff, but once the trailer was unpacked, it looked like we’d brought the whole state of Iowa with us. Looking at the overwhelming mess, I decided I’d stay in and get the apartment in order while Ethan was out job hunting.
With my feet successfully covered, I walked out into the tiny kitchen. After unpacking, we’d gone to a small market down the street and grabbed a few staples: milk, bread, cereal, eggs, and lunch meat. I wished we had more so I could make Ethan breakfast to celebrate the first morning in our new home. I thought about making eggs and toast, but the pans were all still packed away and it was anybody’s guess as to where the toaster was. I wasn’t even sure it had made the trip.
I heard the water turn off and the curtain pulling back and then a curse from Ethan.
“Nat!” he called from the bathroom. “I forgot to get a towel. Can you get one for me?”
“Hold on! I gotta find them.”
I quickly glanced around the mounds of boxes until I spotted the box labeled BATHROOM in black Sharpie and pulled it open.
“Can you hurry up, please! I’m freezing!” Ethan called out again.
“Hold your horses!” I shouted back as I pulled a towel from the box. “Here,” I said, holding it out to him once I was in the bathroom. He peeked around the shower curtain and I couldn’t help but think how cute he looked with his wet hair hanging on his forehead. I tossed the towel to him and he wiped his face.
“Thanks,” he said as he wrapped it around his waist.
“Don’t shout at me next time. I’m not the one who got in the shower without a towel.”
“I’m sorry,” he said apologetically, stepping out. “Looks like I forgot the bathmat as well,” he said, leaving wet footprints as he walked over to the sink and began brushing his teeth.
“Can I get you a bowl of cereal or something?” I asked, sitting down on the edge of the tub, watching him.
“No, thanks though,” he said, spitting into the sink. “I need to get going.”
“How long do you think you’ll be gone?” I asked, not looking forward to spending the day alone.
“However long it takes, but I’ll definitely be home in time to take you to dinner.”
He stooped down and kissed me again and I stood up, wrapping my arms around his damp body. I was overly aware of the thin layer of terrycloth separating us. There were few things I found as beautiful as Ethan in a towel and I started kissing his warm neck, hoping to distract him enough to get what I wanted.
“We are not doing this right now,” he smiled as he took my hands and held them to my sides. When I looked at him, he was blushing. I loved the way I could affect him. “I’ve got to focus on getting a job and you are entirely too distracting, Natalie Vasser.”
“As are you, Ethan Carter. You shouldn’t be strutting around in only a towel if you don’t want to get a reaction out of me,” I said, running my finger over the edge of the towel and I could feel him tense up when my skin brushed his.
“I just got out of the shower,” he laughed. “What do you expect me to be
“Not this,” I said, tugging more vigorously at the towel, while he fought to keep it on. “You’ve got the whole day to look for a job, but right now, you’ve only got this one moment.”
“Dammit,” he grunted. “You’re impossible, Natalie.” I just laughed as he scooped me up, rushing me to the bedroom, practically throwing me onto the bed, the towel lost somewhere between the bathroom and the kitchen.
He tore the clothes from my body, hoisting my t-shirt over my head with such force, my hair got twisted in it. We both started laughing as he tried to untangle me, but when the shirt was finally on the floor, he stared at me for a moment, his gaze wandering over my bare breasts before meeting my eyes and then nearly lunging at me, his lips pressing against my neck and chest while he tugged at my pants until I was as naked as he was.
His body was still damp from the shower, his wet hair dripping on my skin as his lips made their way over my body. He smelled fresh and clean, the scent of his body wash like a pheromone that only made me want him more than I already did. He held me tightly, my legs wrapping around him, pulling him to me. Foreplay was not something I was interested in and I knew Ethan wasn’t either.
He pulled me up, our arms moving frantically over each other while our mouths fought. Our breathing was hard and when I bit his lip, he groaned in a way that only excited me more. I couldn’t help but giggle and he pulled back suddenly, staring at me with wanting eyes and I stifled my laugh, staring back at him just as hard, our lips hovering only inches from each other.
“You know I love you.” His voice was insistent.
“Of course I do,” I whispered, my hand cupping his smooth cheek. “I love you too.”
Even after all this time, he loved me and he wanted me. I could see that by the hunger in his eyes.
A second later, he pushed me down until my back was against the comforter and he was hovering over me just long enough so I could see him smile, his dark hair hanging on his forehead, his deep eyes staring down at me before we lost ourselves in each other until we lay there, a tangled mess, exhausted and spent as I trailed my fingertips over his slick chest. I knew he was having a hard time catching his breath and I smiled to myself, loving the affect I had on him. I couldn’t kid myself though, he had the same affect on me.
I was still blushing as I started working on organizing the apartment. Ethan had been gone over an hour now, but I couldn’t stop thinking about earlier in the bedroom. I missed him already. I’d always needed him, but never more than now. He was the lone soul I knew in this giant city. Now that he was off wandering the streets of New York, I’d never felt more alone.
I decided to push my loneliness to the back of my mind and focus on getting the apartment together. The bedroom was first priority. I couldn’t stand living out of a suitcase like we were on vacation. This was our home now and I needed to be able to find my things when I needed them. There wasn’t a lot of space in the small closet, but I did my best to squeeze both of our clothes inside. There were also a few plastic drawers Ethan had picked up on his initial trip to get the apartment. I filled those with socks and underwear and when I was done, the room looked almost presentable, but I made a mental note to get some curtains when we had the extra dollars, but for now, at least we could find our clothes.
I tackled the kitchen next. It took a couple of hours to clean it and put away the dishes and pots and pans, but when I was done, I was happy with it. It was cute and quaint and I couldn’t wait to cook Ethan dinner on the miniature stove.
I worked on the bathroom next, putting away the towels and the rest of the toiletries, again making notes on ways to decorate it and make it our own.
The living room was last and there wasn’t much to do. There was a small table and a beige loveseat that had seen better days. It definitely wasn’t my dream living room set, but when the super said we could keep it, Ethan had jumped at the chance. He assured me we’d get a new couch once we could afford it. Until then, I decided to spread a white sheet over it and pray the previous tenants had practiced good hygiene.
When I was done, I was a sweaty mess and the living room was a pile of empty boxes. I decided to go outside and see if there was anywhere to dispose of all the cardboard. I opened the door and poked my head out into the hallway. The door to the apartment across the hall was open a crack. The TV was on too loud and I could smell the faint scent of a cigar wafting into the hallway. Other than that, there was no sign of life.
I pushed the door open the rest of the way and stepped into the hall, quickly taking the stairs to the bottom level and opening the door. The city was alive with people strolling up and down the sidewalks and cars creeping by. I couldn’t quite get used to the smell of New York. It was almost stale, like standing water with occasional hints of rotting fruit. It was the smell of too many people living in one place. As I stood on the stoop, I looked up and down the street for a dumpster, but all I saw were piles of trash on the curb waiting to be picked up. With a sigh, I turned back into the stillness of the hallway. I still couldn’t believe how dead the whole place looked. We’d been here almost twenty-four hours and yet to see another soul in the building. We hadn’t met a single neighbor, but I had to remind myself I was in New York City, not Cedar Rapids. No one was going to be showing up at our doorstep with an apple pie and a smile.
I headed back to the apartment, wondering what would become of the boxes. When I got to the top of the steps, I looked towards our apartment and saw an old woman standing by the door where the overly loud TV had been coming from. The woman was short and round, with dyed jet black hair and wrinkly skin. She wore a black dress sprinkled with tropical flowers and it hung over her body like a tent.
“You live here?” the woman asked as I got closer. Her voice was deep and raspy as if she’d been smoking two packs a day for forty years.
“We just moved in yesterday,” I said, putting on my best Midwestern smile.
“You left your door open. Never leave your door open,” the woman said gruffly. I couldn’t tell if she was being condescending or just passing on some friendly advice. It was hard to tell the difference with New Yorkers.
“Oh, I didn’t realize I had. I’ll be more careful,” I said, resting my hand on the doorknob.
“I’m Doris. Gene’s inside. He’s deaf as a doornail,” she said, gesturing towards their apartment. “The old coot refuses to put his hearing aides in. Insists his hearing is fine. Drives me nuts.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Doris was proving to be quite a character.
“You gotta boyfriend, Natalie?”
“He’s out right now. His name’s Ethan. He’s tall with dark hair, in case you see him wandering around and mistake him for some kind of criminal or something,” I said with a laugh.
“Not married?” she asked with a questioning raised eyebrow.
“Living in sin, huh?”
“If you wanna put it that way, I guess we are.”
“Good for you,” Doris laughed. It was a deep, raspy bellow and I loved it.
“We’ll get married someday,” I added quickly.
“Don’t rush anything. You’re young. Enjoy it, because before you know it, you’ll look like this,” she said, holding up her hands in a pose.
I liked Doris. It was nice to talk to someone and I thought maybe Doris and Gene would be good neighbors, even if the TV was too loud.
“You’re not from New York, are you?” Doris said, eyeing me curiously.
“No. Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”
“Iowa? Do you miss all that corn?”
“Well, if you kids need anything, let me know.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you might be able to tell me where I can put some cardboard boxes.”
“Take a right off the stoop and there’s a spot to dump your trash tucked away below the sidewalk.”
“No problem,” she replied and walked back into her apartment and closed the door, but not before I heard her shouting at Gene. “Turn down that damn TV!”
I laughed to myself and went back into the apartment and gathered up the boxes. It took a few trips, but eventually, all the cardboard was cleaned out and it almost looked like a home. When I was done, I flopped myself on the sheet covered couch and checked the time. It was nearly five o’clock. Ethan had to be coming home soon and I was still a mess from cleaning.