Love and sex. These were the two things she convinced herself she needed. Well, needed was the wrong word. But they were two things she hadn't experienced in a long time. So, were they needed then? She thought on the matter for much longer than she should have.
Needed has a sense of urgency to it; a sense that, without it, you wouldn't live. We need food, water and air, for example. No-one has ever been declared dead from a lack of love or sex, at least, not as far as she was aware. She didn’t think any doctor had ever prescribed a dose of a one-night stand, followed by a course of regular masturbation, to any woman.
She read a story in a glossy magazine once, about a woman in America whose doctor would insist on feeling her breasts every time she went to an appointment, and insisted she come back for regular check-ups, but the doctor’s later arrest and incarceration suggested he wasn’t the most qualified of clinicians. So would a lack of love or sex ever be devastating to the point that it would be 'needed'?
It was decided; she didn’t need love or sex. Rather, she wanted both badly. But which did she want more? She arrived at 'wanted', because it was the same feeling as when she had passed by a blue skirt in a shop window about two months ago. The colour was gorgeous, more of a shiny cobalt in retrospect, but it had a silky appearance and flowed from the waist of the mannequin wearing it like petals on an upside-down flower. It was a piece of art, both in looks and in price-tag. She had wanted something so beautiful, so ideal for her and so unattainable. Which brought her to now, with that exact same feeling, about something completely different but, to her, all the more unattainable.
Jess was not an ugly woman; she found the term 'ugly' became more and more redundant as she became older. Ugly tended to be the catchphrase of insecure people; used to hurt those who were more vulnerable or not to their standards. As a teenager, Jess had heard a group of popular girls say it to Stacey Chapman, a girl in her form who was always ridiculed for her long face and big ears. Stacey would burst out crying whenever she heard it. ‘The ugly elf’ was the most common taunt.
Jess did agree that Stacey looked odd, but not ugly. As a matter of fact, Stacey was so clever and charming, you'd have struggled to call her anything negative after talking to her for five minutes. But, ugly was what the popular girls had chosen for her, and it would always upset Stacey deeply. Years later, Stacey grew into her ears, and her face became so interesting and flawless that it earned her pride of place as a model for an Italian cosmetics company. The ring-leader of the popular girls, who Jess couldn't recall the name of now, had been spotted barely three years after school ended, pushing a pram and swearing at the toddler inside it. Jess recalled seeing her stomp down the street that day, but even then did not think of her as ugly. Revolting was much more appropriate.
So Jess knew she was not an ugly woman, but she didn’t consider herself beautiful either. As a student she had looked fantastic, at least compared to now. Whenever an old photo popped up on her social media, she would smile with a mix of nostalgia and shame. Staring back at her would be a slim, beaming girl with dyed hair that shone silver, and a vest or dress that made her cleavage pop out so much, that she wondered how she never caught a cold every week, especially on the photos dated from December.
What greeted Jess in the mirror that morning was over a decade older and a few shades darker-haired. Jess' natural hair colour had been battling the golden blonde she had adopted for the past three years. Each time she dyed it, her brown roots came back stronger and fiercer, taking over her blonde hair like ink falling into water. Not to mention the greys; tiny silver devils that waited until she was feeling her lowest, then appearing clear as day, but ironically late at night, and resulting in a five-minute battle with the tweezers and, on at least two occasions, an unnecessary minute of crying.
The colour aside, Jess' hair was still long, lustrous and, when freshly dyed, shone as bright as it did back at University. It was easily tameable too, which she counted as a blessing. On days where time allowed, she would opt to straighten it, but a quick spritz with dry shampoo and a thorough brush was enough on mornings when she was overly generous with the snooze button. Out of everything, Jess could confidently say that her hair had been the most kind to her over the years. However, everything else seemed to have a personal vendetta against her and her love life.
Her face had begun to wrinkle. Only slightly, but it became more noticeable every time she looked. It was mostly around the eyes, where tiny lines formed, that stood out whenever she squinted. It never occurred to her what the phrase 'crow's feet' meant, until the wrinkles first appeared. When Jess first noticed them, it reminded her of the small tracks robins sometimes make in the snow. That would make wrinkles more appealing, she had thought, if they called them 'robin's feet' instead. At least robins are cute; crows are cranky and bitter. Perhaps that's why they say 'crow's feet' then; because the more you get, the crankier and more bitter you become. From the moment those wrinkles first appeared, the thought of becoming a cranky, bitter crow; or an old, boring librarian sounded like the only two options in Jess' future.
At least the rest of her face was fine (except her chin, which she thought too pointy). Her eyebrows were always plucked perfectly, her brown eyes were deep and dark, like an oiled wood, and her lips were the ideal shape for lipstick, with sharp points on her cupid’s bow that made her mouth look like a calligraphic 'M' when she applied it right. Her lips were her favourite part of her face, followed closely by the lone dimple on her left cheek, that made a surprise appearance whenever she smiled.
Jess was still slim; maybe not as slim as the girl who existed in her social media pictures, but she hadn’t changed that much since University. She still ran when she had the time and managed to squeeze in a 5k or 10k every few months, sometimes for charity, sometimes to boast her run online. She would not call herself an athlete though. Ten years ago she had the firm outline of a six-pack, but nowadays it was a flat surface; one that, in her opinion, hung too much when she sat down. She used to be self-conscious about her legs (she thought that they weren’t skinny enough), but after four weeks of doing a squat challenge she read about, and with no drastic changes to her legs' appearance, she conceded that her legs were never going to change. Soon after that, she stopped feeling so bad about them. Her arms were fairly impressive though and she would sometimes flex them for her own amusement.
“Years of carrying emotional baggage,” she laughed to herself, after changing into a gym vest one evening.
Jess was resolute in her opinion of herself. She was an acceptable woman who, given the time to prepare, was not terrible to look at and could easily pass for a few years younger (just creeping over thirty, is how she described it). She did sometimes lament her own hypocrisy; obsessing over her looks and how others perceived her, despite believing that women’s merit shouldn’t be judged by appearance alone. But if looking great made her feel better about herself, then what did it matter? Her inner voice, which often spoke up when she was unsure of herself, had an opinion on this. You only feel better because you think looking good is the key to happiness. You’ve been brainwashed by magazines, social media and reality TV, but you’re too much of a coward to admit or fight it. Jess, however, was very good at ignoring this voice.
All she wanted now was love and sex, preferably in that order. The reason Jess felt like she was missing out on her two big desires wasn't for a lack of potential, but due to an increase in competition. For one, nearly half the women she knew that were her age were married, divorced, pregnant, a parent, in a relationship and (in two cases that she knew of) polyamorous. The other half were so desperately single or bad with relationships, that they had taken to every measure of letting the world know. Updating their social media statuses, posting inspirational quotes about ‘only needing me’ and signing up for online dating websites; both free and paid ones.
Jess knew about these women because, for a time, she had been one, although in her case she chose a dating app. She stopped using it when the cavalcade of vile, sexist and unsophisticated chat-up lines from matched men became unbearable. That, and the regular pictures of strangers’ penises; none of which took her fancy. The experience of the dating app was a moment of clarity for Jess, as she realised she was not so desperate that she would resort to announcing her single status to every moron with an internet connection, but she was still desperate.
How long had it been? Since her last real relationship it had been over three years, and since her last shag...she was stumped. When was it? And who was it with? There was the Christmas party, when she danced too close to Colin, one of the senior architects at her work who had twins on the way at the time (they were now six months old). But she was certain that was the closest she got to action that night. Especially since Colin pulled away every time Jess got near his lips.
Then she remembered. After stumbling out of a nightclub later that night, she got into a taxi with a man dressed as an elf. But they had fallen asleep at his, hadn't they? They definitely had, since his elf costume was a onesie and, after struggling to remove it, he shouted “fuck off” to his zip and fell onto the bed, before quickly passing out. Jess fell asleep shortly after that.
Was it Valentine's Day then? It was around the time she had the dating app, because she remembered re-downloading and scrolling through it at work, in a last-ditch attempt to find a Valentine’s date. She felt bad about it, as to free up space on her phone, she deleted a video of her mum & dad singing karaoke at the cricket club at their Pearl anniversary party. But she got a match almost instantly, even after only approving the men she rated as a seven, or higher, out of ten. He started chatting with her a few minutes after. What was his name? It was something exotic; Antonio, Gregorio...Pedro! That was it. Pedro. He managed a wine bar and was devastatingly handsome, what was not to like?
The date itself was spectacular. On the lead up to Valentine's Day, Pedro invited Jess to his bar while he finished his shift, since he worked late into the night most evenings. Jess agreed and got fully prepared, complete with a bright red 'M' on her lips and fully shaving all the places that count. She chanced her favourite black dress that ended at what she considered the 'sweet spot' of her legs; just below the bum, with enough thigh revealed to show off a bit. Her hair was perfectly straightened too, but that resulted in spending half the evening wafting away stray strands that slipped in front of her eyes.
Pedro was charming and funny, with olive skin, slicked brown hair and dazzling, white teeth. He wore a white shirt, with the top two buttons undone and his sleeves rolled to his elbows, revealing arms and a chest that were covered in hair and pleasantly toned. His voice was high-pitched, but warm, with an excitable Spanish accent that made everyday phrases like “Of course” and “Fantastic” seem wonderfully poetic. Jess' own voice was deeper than most girls’, but that night she giggled to a squeak at Pedro’s charm. The more she laughed, the more hair would fall in front of her face, which led to a mad scramble to put it back where it was. Pedro would sometimes sweep the hair out of her eyes and her stomach would do a flip.
Before his shift ended, Pedro chatted to Jess, then asked his staff to perform various tasks around the bar; some in Spanish, some in English. The way he flipped from each language was impressive, to the point where he might have been showing off, but Jess had not cared; she was awestruck. When he finally came to sit by her, she noticed him still wearing his small work apron, which made her strangely more attracted to him. His confidence was infectious and Jess became more and more comfortable as the night went on, which was helped by the different wines Pedro ordered for them both.
The evening became a beginner's lesson in wine tasting and an immense turn-on for Jess. Pedro complemented each sip and gulp by talking in a hushed voice, describing the notes and hints she should have been getting; the smells, the taste, the texture. All her senses burned at once; it was like Pedro had heightened her every instinct.
When she first arrived she sat hunched; her body language betraying her nerves. This was the main cause for her hair falling into her eyes. By the end of the night, she was upright, back straight, bust aimed at Pedro and her hair firmly in place. His charisma and the wine's encouragement had completely taken Jess over. After finishing the last glass of wine, Pedro beamed at her with his impossibly unstained teeth and softly licked his lips; his eyes hovering to Jess’ mouth. She pursed her lips, to repress a smile of glee upon realising he was equally as infatuated as her. But before she could give him the satisfaction of a kiss, she committed to challenging his confidence, and leaned closer to him.
“Are we going back to yours then?” she said coolly, biting her lip as softly as he had licked his.
Pedro responded with a laugh, sounding somewhere between surprised and impressed. He paused momentarily, before grabbing his leather jacket and beckoning to the door. “Lady's first, lead the way.”
Jess smiled, squeezed his hand and led him out the door.
They took a taxi back to his house. Pedro shushed her when they first entered, explaining that he lived with two housemates, who were both asleep. Jess was giddy; walking up the stairs on tiptoes and tittering when she tripped on the last step, before entering Pedro’s bedroom.
The moment she heard the door click was like a switch, turning on a motor inside her body. Her chest and stomach immediately started whirring, and she panted in excitement. Despite being in full darkness, Pedro drew towards her like a magnet; his hand finding the back of her head and Jess finding his chest. She could now feel the hair she had been staring at all night; it was pleasant to touch. He pressed his lips tightly against hers, and she squeezed her hands against him. His body was solid, as he tensed his muscles and caressed the back of her head, then gently scratched and pulled her hair, sending electric shivers down her spine.
The kiss was firm, but not forceful, as his tongue teased the opening of her mouth with a gentle lick. Jess' brain was a whirlwind; she was being guided by passion and instinct alone, as she grabbed the opening of his shirt and ripped it apart. He gasped, still kissing, but silently encouraged her. When the last button popped, they pulled apart briefly. The shirt was thrown to the ground with a thump and Pedro moved quickly to her again. Jess could now grab every part of his torso. He was covered in soft hair and enticing muscle. She touched the curves and dents of his six-pack, his shoulders, his biceps and forearms. She waited for him; for what his next move would be.
Pedro's hands found the zip on the back of her dress, and moved it down. She was relieved, but also disappointed; part of her hoped he would have ripped her dress with the same intensity that she had shown. But then what would I have worn tomorrow? popped into her head, but the thought soon fizzled when Pedro continued. As the dress was undone, he kissed each new part of her body that became exposed. Her neck, down to her shoulder, the top of her breast, her ribs, her stomach. Once fully unzipped, he slipped the dress down and continued to kiss. Her hip, the top of her thigh, her knee, her shin, her ankle. Jess stepped out and kicked the dress to the side. Without warning, Pedro grabbed her behind the legs, stood up straight, and picked her up.
The ease with which he lifted her had stopped her from gasping “put me down”, out of fear she would be too heavy. Instead, she let out an impressed sigh, and wrapped her arms and legs around his body. He effortlessly walked her over to the bed and eased her down onto her back. It was soft and feathery, and made a quiet ‘hmph’ noise as her weight hit the mattress. All her senses were aroused; the darkness heightening them further. She tasted the remnants of good wine from Pedro's lips, smelled the earthy aroma of his aftershave, felt the goosebumps he left on her skin and heard the exciting clinking of his belt being undone.
Jess sighed with anticipation. Blind to his actions, she jostled as he dropped his arms either side of her, as if he were about to begin a press-up. Jess' hands explored his body and ran down his chest and stomach, tracing the outlines of his muscles, before reaching lower. He was stiff, warm and pulsing, his hot blood rushing around his body. Pedro’s hands were now bringing her underwear down, past her knees, over her ankles and then over to some unknown corner of the room. She giggled through a bit lip and teased him against herself. All the excitement had made her more prepared than she expected, as Pedro moaned deeply at the sensation of her. They were both writhing; their hips moving and swaying rhythmically until they could not bear it any longer.
“May I?” Pedro's voice sounded deeper, but polite.
A smile burst onto Jess’ face, as she giggled once more. She hummed her approval, and clenched her fingers on his arms, breathing deeply as he moved closer. It was an awakening; like hot pleasure shooting through her body. Jess let out a long, involuntary moan, as Pedro placed his full length inside her. He was slow and smooth, every centimetre of friction oozing through her like a sweet liquid.
She did not realise how hard she was squeezing his arms until he laughed, “Not too hard, sweet thing.”
Her hands shot back, to either side of her head.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
But Pedro shushed her, before clasping her hands with his. They kissed again, slower this time, in rhythm with their movements. His hands were holding her down, but it was not painful. She welcomed it. He had taken full control as he increased the pace, quickly thrusting inside her. Each thrust sent another jolt of pleasure through her body. Jess’ skin begged to be touched. Pedro must have sensed it, as he proceeded to stroke, kiss and nibble each area that longed for release. Her neck prickled, and was soothed by his licks and kisses; her head was hot, until he gently pulled on her hair. Each new encounter brought more pace. As he made his body upright, his thrusts were now filled with power and passion.
Pedro let go of her hands and now had a hold of Jess' hips, ensuring that each movement was felt by both of them intensely and without interruption. She could feel pressure building up inside her, as her hands gripped the sheets and her moans became louder and stuttered. She could hear Pedro's breaths becoming faster and sharper, the sounds like sweet honey, at the thought of how much he was enjoying her. Jess panted, “Faster,” without thinking, as Pedro obliged to the order and thrust as quickly as he could.
Jess moved up the bed with each entry, the pressure building more and more. A bubble of pleasure inflated deep inside her, growing bigger and bigger. Her moans were coming straight from her throat, the noise escaping on its own accord. She had no control of her body; her animal instinct took over as she waited for the sweet release.
“Oh my God,” Pedro gasped.
Through staggered breaths, he somehow thrusted faster. The pressure became unbearable. Jess wanted to hold off, to climax simultaneously, but she was already giving in. Seconds later, she let go; the bubble burst. Euphoria shuddered from her legs to her chest. She shuddered as she smoothed her hands along Pedro's body, her skin erupting with tingles. As she did, Pedro groaned, and she felt him twitch as he released inside her, sending more shudders of pleasure through her. There lay there, drunk and exhausted off each other's bodies, deeply satisfied, warm and embracing tightly as they calmed down; the hot sensation of their climax evaporating, leaving a sense of fulfilled comfort in its wake.
Pedro fell down next to Jess, his hot breath hitting her neck and hair sharply. She placed a hand on his back, now covered in sweat, and he squeezed her hip in response. It was just what she needed. Now that it was over, all Jess wanted to do now was fall asleep by his side, with her head resting upon his chest, and the soothing beat of his heart to drift her off to sleep. But first the clean up. She felt foolish now for being unprotected. Despite having been on her current pill for over a year, she could still have caught something from the encounter.
But it appeared that she wasn’t the only worried party, as Pedro said, “I hope you don't have anything I should be worried about,” in a jovial tone, although Jess suspected he was using it to hide genuine concern.
“No, don't worry,” she replied, satisfied that he probably didn't have any infectious secrets to hide either.
He retrieved a towel to wipe away what remained of their love-making, before dropping down next to her and pecking her on the lips.
“How was that beautiful?” he crooned, a smile barely visible on his lips in the darkness.
They kissed again. Jess could hear him exhaling through his nose as he tried to get his breath back. Soon they were under the duvet, Jess' dream of resting on Pedro's chest now becoming a reality. The wine and sex was the perfect nightcap, and before she knew it, Jess was fast asleep.
She wasn't sure how long she had been asleep for when she woke up, but she guessed it couldn't have been long. The room was still dark, and Pedro did not stir at the muffled vibration that disturbed her. A phone on the far side of the bedroom floor illuminated the ceiling, with Jess realising that in the process of stripping, she hadn't taken the time to put her belongings anywhere appropriate. She slid off the bed and walked over to the source of illumination. The combination of darkness and her tipsy eyesight meant she had to bring the phone within blinding distance of her eyes to check whether or not it was hers. As she did, it became quickly apparent that the phone did not belong to her. Jess' heart sank.
Not one, not two, but three different names were staring at her, in separate green boxes. ‘Rose’, ‘Natasha’ and ‘Beatrice’ all had their messages to Pedro unread.
Rose: Are you free next week then? Xx
Natasha: Haha, wouldn't you like to know x
Beatrice: Te extraño amor x
Embarrassment fell like a cold shroud over Jess. The phone screen became blurred as tears glazed over her eyes, but she sniffed them back up. There was no time for dramatics; there was no point in feeling bad at all. This was her fault. Once again naïvety and loneliness had combined to make her impulsive and stupid. She was angry at herself, even though all logic should have made her angry at Pedro, who was still sound asleep, guilt-free and undisturbed.
Jess grabbed her dress, and managed to find her knickers after feeling for them on the floor. She slipped them back on and only bothered to zip her dress up halfway, before slowly opening the door, and closing it with a small 'click'. She tiptoed back downstairs where her bag had been waiting all along, then grabbed her phone from inside and phoned the number of a taxi service.
“Hello,” greeted a bored sounding woman on the other end.
“Erm...Hi, can I get a taxi from, er...” Jess' voice cracked, as she realised she had no idea what the address was.
Her eyes scanned around the hallway and saw a catalogue for a catering wholesaler that had been posted to the house; it was addressed to Pedro.
Seeing his name made her face screw up, but she shook it off and read out the address. “...twelve Bradford Mews. I'm going to Saxon Road,” her voice still quivered, but if there had been a hint that she was upset, the woman at the taxi service ignored it.
“Right, and what's the name?” she responded.
“Okay Jess, it's on its way.”
“Thank y—” but the woman hung up before she could finish.
Jess sniffed again, then made her way out of the house, being sure to close the front door as quietly as she could. The taxi soon arrived.
Once she got home, she let herself cry enough to get it out of her system, before getting into her pyjamas and into her own bed. It took a lot longer to get to sleep here, since she was now dreading waking up fully sober, full of regret and just as embarrassed. The last thing Jess remembered thinking, was that she never wanted to feel like this ever again.
She wasn't sure how many times Graham called her name before she heard it. In her head she was still reliving her night with Pedro.
“Jess....Jess?...Jess!” Graham raised his voice in the end.
She startled back into the room.
“Welcome back then,” he sounded annoyed, but kept his composure in front of the rest of the congregation.
She didn’t know how much of the meeting she had missed, but the slide on the projector read ‘Announcing Personal Work Relationships to HR - Jessica Whitmarsh.’