“What are you up to?”
Gage jumped, startled by the sound of Heather Archibald’s voice as she approached from behind. He was standing by the well, trying to get a signal for his phone because he had received a message from his boss. Billy was coming home, but that was all he could make out from the voicemail. The other message was from Kass, and she sounded frantic. He pushed buttons on his phone in frustration, annoyed by the interference of the wooded area.
“I’m trying to dial out,” he muttered.
“Well, you look unhappy to see me,” Heather remarked.
She was carrying a tray with a head of iceberg lettuce, a yellow bell pepper, and a glass bottle of olive oil. She looked about ready to prepare dinner. Gage lifted the phone to his ear hoping she would pass him by, but she didn’t.
“Look, I know I shouldn’t be saying this because we…” she glanced around and then spoke the word almost disdainfully. “…Nativians… don’t believe in technology, but there’s a place in the open field out there where the reception is good.”
“‘K, thanks,” he nodded, pretending to listen to the message.
Heather smiled, tracing a finger over his chest. “You’re welcome,” she said, in a seductive tone. “Hey if you ever get bored with Lè, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I’m sure she won’t mind.”
His nostrils flared. Lè had just told him she wouldn’t be seeking any more male companionship and he didn’t want anyone else either. He thought he had been abundantly clear with the woman, but she didn’t seem to catch the hint. Heather flaunted her figure whenever they were in the bathhouse together, she played footsie with him beneath the dinner table, and she’d even rubbed up against him once when he was waiting for Lè in the bedroom. She may have been an attractive woman, but he was disgusted by her overtures. He was keenly aware of how sexually expressive the women of the Collective were, but he still didn’t appreciate Heather’s attentions to him. Doesn’t she know I’m taken? He tapped his forefinger against his pocket, patting the telltale box through his jeans. Tonight, he was about to be more than taken.
Things were going well between himself and Lè. She had been teaching him about her culture and the practices of Nativians. She had been teaching him other things too… particularly about his body. They had been experimenting with different positions, and he had been enjoying himself, learning their natural rhythms. He had done his research about other collectives and about their practices. He found himself liking the rejection of technology and modern culture more and more, especially when he could feel the earth beneath his feet and he could spend his days in the arms of the woman he loved.
Lè balanced her responsibilities as ahmi beautifully. She excellently managed the income for the Collective, balancing the books so everyone always had plenty. She listened to everyone’s problems and concerns with compassion and understanding. She ground her own flour and canned her own fruits and vegetables. She worked in the town flower shop, contributing the Collective’s own prize roses, and always treated the customers with kindness. She worked the land on her days off – working in the garden, caring for the horses, and chopping wood, prepping the Collective for winter. She practiced her spirituality with grace, devoting each day to prayer, meditation, and reflection. She answered his incessant questions about the Anima faith and her leadership of the Nativian community. She made time for him, and blessed him with frequent lovemaking, always willing to try something new and please him.
He’d even convinced himself he would be okay living in Lè’s lock-less private one-room house. He could make some improvements, like perhaps adding a private kitchen for when they didn’t want to have meals with the rest of the commune. Lè also had suggested adding a studio to the main house so he could practice his painting. He was considering dropping out of school until next fall so he could move into the Collective and adjust to life with Lè. A long life, he smiled to himself and tapped his pocket again. A very long life.
“Kass, hey, it’s Gage…” he waved his hand in the air. “Look, I’ve tried to call you three times and your voicemail got cut off. I’m not even sure you can hear me. I’d love to talk this weekend and catch up. I’ve got great news! Call me.”
Gage walked around the Collective looking for Lè. He had a burning question he wanted to ask her. His heart raced and he wiped sweat from his temples despite the chilliness of the Simtober evening. This is it, buddy, the moment you’ve been waiting for… and you never thought you’d find love… not this young… not this early in life. He coached himself, walking through the words he would say to the woman he loved. After checking the garden, outdoor kitchen, orchards, main house, ceremonial room, the altar, and the bunkhouse, he finally located her by the stables. She was finishing pouring buckets of fresh water into the trough for the horses.
“Solèi!” he called to her excitedly.
She turned, her face breaking into a big smile. He couldn’t wait. He had to kiss those beautiful lips. She melted into his arms, willingly, and he squeezed her tightly to his chest.
This is the woman I will spend my life with, he thought as he pulled back and stared into her eyes. He kept his hand cupped around her neck, unwilling to let her go.
“What?” she laughed happily.
“I have something to tell you,” he replied earnestly.
“Okay, go ahead,” she urged.
He took her hand.
“I have known you for only a few months, but I feel as though you’ve been in my heart my whole life. I have dreamed about a woman like you to have and to hold. I can’t believe you chose to open yourself up to me like the flower opens to the sun, and yet it’s really I who has been blessed by the radiance of you.”
“Gage,” she gasped. “That’s beautiful.”
He held up his hands. “Wait, I’m not done.”
“I wanted to do something special for you for awhile. I know that you didn’t want your own home, and I understand that now, because these people… this collective… they are your home. And I want to be in your home. I want to be apart of your life in every way.”
“Now I did a little research, and I discovered when a man and a woman love each other in the Nativian culture, they do not exchange typical rings, which is why…”
Gage bent on one knee, pulling the velvet box from his pocket and opening the lid to reveal a glistening green stone.
“… I found a prayer stone to give you instead. I hope you like it… oh… wait… hold on… um…” he fumbled for his final words.
“Gage, are you asking me to marry you?” Lè asked, her emotions impossible to read.
“Damn it! I can’t even say the words right,” Gage grunted, shifting in his kneeling position. “Yes, Lè, Solèi Ona, I want you to marry me and be my bride!”
Lè stood motionless and speechless. Gage waited with breathless anticipation for her tiny one-word answer.
But it wasn’t the answer he wanted. She closed the lid of the box with one finger and pushed the box back into his shirt pocket, her eyes moistening with tears.
“Gage, I cannot marry you,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
He hopped to his feet. “Why not?” he grunted.
“Because, an ahmi doesn’t marry. We commit to one another, but we don’t do it with ceremony and traditions. We just accept one another as we are. There’s no reason to tie a name or a prayer stone to it.”
Oddly, he felt most hurt by her last comment. He spent weeks looking for the perfect prayer stone, and finally found one on the Internet from the Simiribbean, from the original Nativian home island, Twikkii. For Lè to toss it aside carelessly stung.
“You said you would try and embrace my cultural practices and my wishes too,” he said sadly. “I want to be married in my church. I know I haven’t been there in awhile, but it’s tradition, and my dad…” he hadn’t spoken about Pablo in a long time. “…will be there to stand up with me. You’d be a beautiful bride. And we can come back and live here and I’ll follow all the other customs and practices. I promise. Just please marry me.”
“You may move in with me, but we have already mated. We are already in love. We don’t need a ring or a marriage document to prove our love.”
“But I want more.”
“I can’t give you more.”
“Why not?” he clenched and unclenched his fists in frustration. “Lè, I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to be with you. And I want you to be mine.”
Her eyes narrowed and she crossed her wrists in the air to keep him from taking a step toward her. “Gage, I don’t belong to you… any more than you belong to me. If you wish to take another, you can do so. I will not stop you.”
His jaw dropped. She said that so casually.
He rubbed his forehead. “I don’t believe this.”
“Believe it, please, and believe me when I say I love you.”
“You don’t. You don’t. Or you would marry me.”
“You don’t or you wouldn’t ask me to.”
Now it was Gage’s turn to stand in shocked silence. He couldn’t believe it. After all his hard work, after his willingness to accept this lifestyle, after his willingness to give everything up, for a woman he thought he loved… nothing. She wouldn’t even budge one tiny bit. She wouldn’t compromise. He was hurt. He was angry. He was devastated.
Gage stomped off, deciding he was never returning to the Collective. He was wasting his time with a woman who couldn’t give him what he most desired – a home, a family, a life… …a wife.
Gage’s phone beeped, alerting him he had a message.
“GAH!” he threw his hands in the air, swiping at a tear on his cheek.
He punched in his code, and listened to the message.
“Gage… I’m sorry to call you… I shouldn’t be… really… but I… look… about everything that happened in the summer…”
He inhaled and exhaled sharply through his teeth at the sound of his former best friend’s voice. He should hang up. He didn’t care about women. They only used him when they wanted things and discarded him when they were done. He was about to hang up when he heard the sounds of soft crying.
“…listen to me… I’m pathetic… I’m crying… Gawd…”
“…Gage, I want to talk to you… I miss your voice… and your hugs… and I miss being able to call you when I need something… and…” she was sniffling. “…I need something.
“Figures,” he grunted.
“…my dad collapsed.”
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