The next night, Luke picks me up in his car to drive to his parents’ house out in Weston. Weston is a town west of Boston that boasts the highest per capita income in Massachusetts, so it doesn’t surprise me that this is where Luke’s family lives. It doesn’t escape me that Luke lives only a short distance away from them, yet doesn’t seem to see them very often.
I agonize over what to wear. I want to wear something that will show that I’m good enough to be dating a Thayer. The number of hours I spend trying on outfits is a tribute to my growing feelings for Luke. I finally choose a flowered skirt and black fitted blouse that seems to match. Both are practically new, as I don’t have much opportunity to dress up outside of work.
Luke seems really tense when he picks me up. His jaw is clenched and he barely pecks me on the cheek as I climb into the car beside him. He looks like he could use a massage, but I’m not in a good position to give him one, so instead I say, “Can I turn on the radio?”
“Knock yourself out,” Luke says, as he merges onto the highway and I instinctively grab the edge of my seat.
I fiddle with the tuner on the radio. I haven’t listened to the radio in years and I’ve mostly lost touch with new music. I guess that’s the problem with getting into your thirties. I don’t even know who’s popular anymore. Do people still listen to Britney Spears?
“What station is WBCN?” I ask Luke. “I loved that station in college. Alternative music, right?”
“It’s gone,” Luke says. “Shut down. Became a sports station.”
“You’re joking!” I cry. “That’s a tragedy! How could they do that?”
“Boston loves its sports,” Luke says with a shrug. He glances over at me. “Do you want me to buy the station and bring it back?”
I laugh. “You couldn’t really do that.”
Luke shrugs again. Oh god, could he? He probably could. If I asked him to, Luke could buy me a radio station. That’s… kind of cool. Not that I’m impressed by such things.
We drive up to Luke’s parents’ house, and if I was intimidated by Luke’s place, this house is mind-blowing. It’s really more of an estate, with a long winding driveway, a pool, and a vast lawn with fruits growing in it. I feel the blood draining out of my face as I stare at this mansion. I shouldn’t be here. Luke should be here with, I don’t know, a princess or something. Not Ellie Jensen from Jersey.
“This is where you grew up,” I manage to ask him as I emerge from the car on rubbery legs.
Luke nods. He doesn’t seem to realize how intimidated I am by this house. I guess to him, it’s just home.
The house is so beautiful and perfect that the splintered unfinished board leaning against the front steps seems out of place. For a second, I can’t figure out why it’s there, until Luke positions his wheelchair in front of the board and uses it as a ramp to get up the steps. At the top of the board, he struggles a bit to maintain his balance as he jumps up onto the landing.
“No ramp?” I ask.
“My father hasn’t accepted that my inability to walk is permanent,” Luke says. “So I have to call the housekeeper whenever I’m coming to visit so they put out the board for me, so I can get inside.”
I stare at him, shocked.
Luke sighs. “You should probably know, my father’s in permanent denial about my disability. I had to tell him I hired a physical therapist to get me walking again, which of course, I have not. He thinks that if I try hard enough, I’ll walk.”
My heart goes out to Luke. No wonder he seemed so tense in the car earlier.
Luke rings the doorbell, and a few moments later, the pretty woman from the photographs throws open the door. I’m a little relieved it’s not a butler or something. I immediately catch the strong resemblance between mother and son, which makes me like Mrs. Thayer, because of course, I like Luke.
“Luke, sweetheart!” she cries as she bends down to hug him. Mrs. Thayer may be a trophy wife and her face may be lifted to the hilts and her boobs made from silicon, but I don’t doubt for a second that she really loves Luke. She hugs him way too long for it to be phony. “I missed you so much! You need to visit more often.”
“I’ll visit more often when you get a ramp to the front door,” Luke says pointedly.
Mrs. Thayer blushes a bit, then lays her eyes on me. She gives me a quick once-over and her face lights up. “This must be Ellie!” she cries. And I’m pleased because Luke told her about me. I expect her to shake my hand or something equally formal, but instead she throws her arms around me. “It’s so good to meet you. So wonderful!”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Thayer,” I say awkwardly.
“Please, call me Sophie,” she says. Am I imagining it or are her eyes a little teary? Well, at least she didn’t tell me to call her Mom.
Luke looks really uncomfortable by now. He’s shifting in his wheelchair, looking around the house. “Where’s Dad?” he asks.
“He’s resting in the bedroom,” Sophie says. She lowers her voice. “I should tell you, Luke, he’s not doing too well. He’s been needing the oxygen almost all the time. He has to hang onto the furniture when he walks.”
Luke nods. I knew his father had a heart attack and that was why he gave up the company to his son, but I didn’t realize he was that sick. It’s not something Luke ever talked about.
Sophie leads us down a hallway, and at the end, she opens the door to a dimly lit room. Before I can see anything, I hear the blowing of oxygen from the tank. Then my eyes adjust a little and I can see the gray-haired man lying in bed with oxygen prongs in his nose. When I see his sunken cheeks and closed eyes, for a second I think he might be dead. But then his eyes fly open and he yanks the prongs out of his nose. “Sophie,” he snaps as he sits up, “why didn’t you tell me Luke was here?”
“I wanted to let your rest,” Sophie replies gently.
“How are you doing, Dad?” Luke asks.
“Great,” Mr. Thayer huffs. “Never been better! I think I’ll be ready to come back to work within the month.”
Luke doesn’t say anything.
“And how about you?” Mr. Thayer says. “Have you been walking at all yet?”
Luke shakes his head. “Uh, not… yet.”
“But you’re trying, right?” his father presses him. “You haven’t given up, have you? Thayers never give up.”
Luke seems at a loss for words, so instead he says, “Dad, this is Ellie.”
Mr. Thayer, noticing me for the first time, gives me the usual look up and down. But in contrast to the immediate approval I received from Sophie, his face reflects the reaction I’ve been afraid of every time I went somewhere with Luke. That I’m clearly lower class, not terribly pretty, and nowhere near good enough with someone with the money and the name of Thayer.
“Ellie what?” he says.
“Jensen,” I reply weakly.
“Are you from Massachusetts?” he asks.
“New Jersey,” I say.
Mr. Thayer doesn’t even bother to hide his contempt. He shakes his head at his son. “Oh, Luke…”
Luke’s face reddens. “Dad, I don’t even want to hear it. Ellie is wonderful. And… I love her.”
My heart skips a beat. It’s the first time Luke’s said that and I can’t believe he’s announcing it in front of his parents. And as he says it, I realize that I think I love him too.
“Whatever,” Mr. Thayer says, waving his hand as if he’s too important to be concerned by any of this.
“I came to discuss the company’s finances with you,” Luke says. “If you’re well enough.”
“Of course I’m well enough!” Mr. Thayer snaps.
“Fine,” Luke says, no warmth in his voice.
Sophie takes me by the arm and leads me toward the door. “This will be dull for us females,” she says. “Why don’t you and I go have a cup of coffee?”
I thought Sophie was going to make a pot of coffee herself, but instead she delegates the responsibility to her maid and the two of us retire to the “sitting room,” as Sophie calls it. It’s like their living room, only slightly smaller. I can’t imagine living this way. I feel so bourgeoisie.
“So how did you and Luke meet?” Sophie asks me when we’re seated.
“Through work,” I say, not wanting to get into the long story of Luke’s infatuation with me back at Harvard.
“Oh, you work then?” Sophie asks, looking pleased.
“Uh, yes,” I say.
“That’s so wonderful,” Sophie says. “The way so many women work nowadays. Tom would never let me work. Aside from the pageants, of course, but I retired from that after getting married.”
“Oh, yes,” Sophie says. “I was Miss Delaware. A long time ago, of course.” She adds, “But not too long. I had Luke when I was quite young.”
I can totally see Sophie being in a beauty pageant. She’s certainly pretty enough. And while she might be exaggerating her youth, she’s probably at least fifteen years younger than her husband.
“Luke seems very happy with you, by the way,” Sophie says, her eyes shining. “I haven’t seen him so happy in… well, ages.”
“Oh,” I say, blushing.
“It’s hard,” she goes on, “with all the money that he has and his reputation, to find a nice girl to go out with.”
Reputation? What reputation?
“And of course,” Sophie adds, “it’s been so hard since the accident. A lot of women, even the gold-diggers are hesitant about a man with a serious disability.”
I feel like Sophie’s talking too much and Luke would be outraged if he knew. I’ve known women like Sophie before, who seem unable to censor what they say. I wonder if I can use that to my advantage.
“What reputation do you mean, Sophie?” I ask her.
Sophie laughs. “Oh god, you know. Anyone who’s successful, they just try to slander them.”
Okay, that was extremely unhelpful. What the hell is Luke’s secret? This is getting ridiculous.
“Anyway,” Sophie says, “you can take it from me: Luke is a really good person.”
There’s a pause in the conversation. I look at my watch and realize we’ve been sitting here barely fifteen minutes. How long is Luke going to be in there with his father? We’re not going to be sitting here awkwardly for an hour, are we? Or what if it’s longer?
“Um,” I say, “what was Luke like as a kid?”
Sophie’s eyes light up and I know we’ve got the next hour covered.
Luke is with his father for nearly two hours. In that time, I’ve managed to see every photo of him from birth through age 18. He comes out of his father’s bedroom looking exhausted and then seems slightly horrified when he sees all the photo albums. “Mom,” he says, “what have you been doing to poor Ellie?”
“She asked,” Sophie says defensively.
I shrug and Luke just seems too tired to pursue the matter further. “I guess we should go,” he says.
“We’re not staying for dinner?” I ask.
Luke makes a face. “There are five steps to the dining room. My father’s rule is that if I can’t climb those five steps on my own, I can’t stay for dinner. So I think we’ll leave.”
“Oh, Luke,” Sophie murmurs. “We can eat in the living room. The truth is, your father can’t climb those stairs anymore either. He’s too weak.”
“I think we’re going to go anyway,” Luke says. “We’ll just grab dinner on the way home.”
“If you want, sweetheart,” Sophie says, looking extremely disappointed. It’s so obvious that disability or not, Sophie worships the ground her son walks (or wheels) on. “Can I come to your house for dinner one night this month?”
“Of course,” Luke says, and she leans in to give him a hug and a kiss.
On the drive home, Luke seems just as tense and agitated as he did on the way over, although now I guess I can understand why. When we get into Newton, he asks me if I’ll stay the night and I tell him that of course I will.
We grab some Chinese food and eat in the living room. At first, I’m not sure if Luke is going to want to fool around, but when the food is gone, he leans forward and starts kissing my neck. “I’m so glad I have you, Ellie,” he says.
I smile and let him pull me into his lap. He wheels us both to his bedroom and shuts the door behind him. Then he shuts off the lights. Luke always turns off the lights when we fool around and I’ve realized it’s because he’s self-conscious about his body. I try to tell him he’s being ridiculous, but I guess when you go from having the body of the guy I saw the night of Primal Scream to what he’s got now, you realize how much you’re lacking. Honestly, I’ve dated guys who had worse bodies than Luke—fat guys who hadn’t been to a gym in their entire lives. But I can’t lie and say his body looks really good. His chest is entirely devoid of muscle tone, and of course, he’s got the tube coming out of his abdomen.
Luke transfers onto the bed and I undo the buttons on his shirt. He tenses slightly like he always does, but then he relaxes as I start kissing his chest. I pull off my own shirt and Luke grins. “You’re so beautiful, Ellie,” he says. “What the hell do you see in me?”
“You’re rich,” I say and he laughs.
Usually Luke focuses on me, but this time I force him to lie still and I kiss his neck, shoulders, earlobes, and face… everything he can feel. I can taste his skin getting sweaty and from the way his breathing changes, I can tell he’s enjoying what I’m doing for him. He’s pressing his wrists into the small of my back, drawing me closer to him. His breathing gets faster and faster until he throws back his head and moans loudly. I suspect this is the closest he can come to an orgasm.
Luke lies there for a minute, still breathing hard. He blinks and rubs his face. “That was fantastic,” he says.
At this point, most men would probably roll over and say goodnight, but instead he starts kissing me again. Presumably, this means it’s my turn. Usually I’d just be happy and let him pleasure me, but I feel like I’ve got a lot on my mind right now. First and foremost, what secrets is Luke hiding from me? I feel like every time I ask him, he just blows me off and changes the subject. Maybe it’s time for a more direct approach. Except what can I ask about? I have no idea what rumors everyone is talking about.
Well. Except for that one thing Lewis mentioned…
“Luke,” I say, “can I ask you a question?”
“Anything,” he says as he kisses my neck.
“Have you ever been to a prostitute?”
He stops kissing me abruptly and stares at me. “What?”
He seems so shocked by the question that I’m immediately embarrassed for having asked. “Forget it.”
“Why would you ask me that?” he says.
“I don’t know,” I mumble. “It’s just sort of… something I heard.”
“Something you heard,” he muses. He rolls away from me and I notice he covers up his chest with his unbuttoned shirt as much as possible.
I do find it interesting that he hasn’t actually denied it. I would think that if it were untrue, that would be the first thing he’d do. Or even if it were true.
“Once,” he finally says. “I did it once.”
Now it’s my turn to stare. I hadn’t really expected him to answer in the affirmative.
“It was about a year after Rebecca left me,” he says. “I had no confidence and the whole situation just felt so… hopeless. I figured if I was paying for it, if I knew she had to stay and there was no chance of being rejected, I’d feel more confident. I know that sounds stupid, but you have to understand what kind of mental state I was in.”
Luke’s eyes are lowered and he seems really embarrassed about the whole thing. I almost feel like I should tell him not to continue, but I can’t help myself. I’m curious. “I used a really high priced, high quality service,” he says. “So it wasn’t like some disease-ridden whore. She was nice actually, really understanding about everything, and they actually told me this girl had been with disabled clients before, so she knew what to expect. But I just felt so awful about what I was doing. I felt like the biggest loser ever, having to pay for it.” He takes a deep breath. “So that was once. The only time. I figured it was better to be celibate than feel that way about myself.”
I haven’t said anything through Luke’s entire story, so he finally looks up at me and studies my face. “Do you hate me now?” he asks softly.
“No,” I say quickly. “I mean, would it be any better if you went to a bar, got drunk, and hooked up with some stranger you’d never see again?”
“I guess not,” he says uncertainly.
Just to show him I’m okay with the whole thing, I kiss him deeply on the lips. Does it bother me that my boyfriend has gone to a prostitute? Honestly, yes, a little. But I can understand why he did it and I’m not going to hold it against him. Besides, he’s only human. And at least now I know his secret.
To be continued....