Following lunch, I stretched out on a blanket to let the food digest before I went diving for my utility belt and climbing for ropes. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, my shoulder throbbed. Tomorrow my body would hurt, but not as much had Odera been mauled. A relieved sigh sounded before I realized it was mine. Through a cracked eyelid, I watched Odera shake her hair free of the ponytail, and then her shorts came off. After more than a year, I was still a voyeur. Contradictions swirled in my head. Odera gasped as she entered refreshing waters, arms held high as she worked up the gumption to dunk her torso. Water now reached above her waist. One hand pinched her nostrils closed. She disappeared. When she resurfaced, she whipped her hair over her head flinging water droplets into the sunlight. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition had nothing over this production. Robert’s face popped into my head. Beck’s jowls appeared above him. Being a friend was draining. I closed my eyes.
Tiny lake water streams dripped on my chest. My eyes popped open. Odera plopped down. Straddling my waist, she shook her long and wet hair across my face and chest, laughing as she held my wrists to the sand. From tree to tree, a chorus of warbling birdsongs went up and back and around again. My shoulder ached.
“You came back to save lunch, eh? With no intention of helping me? Who do you think you’re fooling?”
Odera squeezed my sides with her knees. Water droplets rolled down her face, past her neck to disappear between her breasts. Water pooled on my chest. Her cool-wet skin warmed where it met mine. We looked at each other through a hair tunnel.
“That’s what I said.”
“How’d you scrape your knees and bruise your shoulder?” She whipped her hair at me. Water misted my torso. “Hmm. You were about to say?”
“Hard enough to turn your shoulder black and blue? What about your T-shirt? It’s ripped. And the blood? You lie worse than a mangy bear rug. You put yourself at risk for me,” Odera declared and flogged me again with her hair, whipping it left to right across my shoulders and face.
Misty cool lake water rained down. I closed my eyes enjoyably at the contrast between cool water and the hot summer sun.
When she finished, I said, “I risked a few scrapes for lunch. You have a pretty high opinion of yourself to think otherwise.”
“And the canoe. The bear might have scratched it.”
“Oh, I forgot. The canoe. Do you normally jump off mountains for canoes and food?” The fun and laughter in her eyes gave me value. My world became richer, more complete. “You swam very fast for food.”
“Bears eat quickly.”
“You only fed him part of our lunch. You were gonna feed it all to him before I spoke up. Before you answer, I want to remind you that you’re under oath.”
“The canoe is a very appealing shade of green.”
“We were talking about food.”
A crooked grin curled one corner of my mouth, “Then I plead the fifth. On the grounds my answer may incriminate me, I cannot answer.”
“May I infer your intent was nourishment of another sort?” Odera badgered.
“No, you can’t. Else, why take the fifth?”
“Why indeed.” She sentenced me to another assault. I enjoyed the attack of cold wet hair and the presence of her warm soft body. When it stopped, she pressed her lips to mine, taking my face in her hands as I fought not to wrap my arms around her. When our kiss ended, she captured my eyes. “You foster hope, Bruce. I almost feel normal. God, it’s been forever since I’ve felt like myself.”
Encased in graveyard silence, I nodded stiffly. Odera smiled. I looked away and back, uncomfortable under those honest eyes, uneasy receiving praise. I did no more than anyone else would have done and less than others might have done. The rest was damage control. Seconds later, I became aware of my arousal, which strained against stretchy climbing shorts. Intimacy triggered embarrassment. Another paradox to solve.
My need to stay distant faded. She was not an anonymous woman. Suddenly I inherited a moral responsibility never to cause harm. In the same racing heartbeat when I understood how emotionally crippled prison had rendered me, I pulled Odera forward for another kiss, stopping when our lips were still inches distant.
“You have to come the rest of the way.”
And so she did. She tasted like Swedish berries. Murmuring lightly, she snuggled closer. One of my hands went to a breast to discover it delicious to knead. A little gasp escaped her. My other hand nestled where waist met hip. After the kiss ended, she raised her head to appraise and hold my eyes with hers.
After long and candid scrutiny, she leaned close and whispered, “I want you Bruce, but you must not touch me down there. Promise that you won’t.”
“I’d be crazy to say no.”
“No crazier than to say yes.”
While I pondered her answer, she kissed her way down my chest. Under her ministrations, my doubt burned to cinders. It was not carnal fun. It was something else altogether different, something that I was not ready to receive. Thirty seconds after part of me travelled toward the small death, guilt and remorse took hold. She was my boss’s daughter and my best friend. It dawned on me that I had just taken advantage of a woman who, because of rape, was unable to complete the act of sex. What was I thinking? My erection subsided rapidly, pushing home dire thoughts. Like me, it wanted to crawl into a corner for this moment of weakness. A strong need to banish her took over control. What the fuck was I thinking? Nothing lasts. There is no future for us. This won’t end well.
“I’d forgotten what it felt like to have contact with a man.” She planted a quick kiss before snuggling close. “I suppose that you want to know why I asked not to be touched.”
Those statements bounced off my ears. They did not compute. I was thinking of something else entirely. At least she had the sense of mind only to kiss me lightly, or maybe she wanted to savour her triumph, I thought savagely. Hadrian’s Wall sprung up between us. I had nothing to offer. Disappointment was my only gift. Claustrophobia trembled my limbs.
“It’s been building for a long time. I’m glad it’s finally out in the open,” she giggled.
“I had a fucking choice, other than to abuse the raped and wounded. Get off me so I can pull up my pants.”
A quizzical expression slid across her face, followed closely by hurt. Indignation instantly avalanched into moxie and courage. She jacked straight up into a sitting position. Battle readiness showed in her gaze and in her voice. I recognized that look.
“Up yours! Men and their friggin’ egos. I aroused you. You needed that contact as much as I did. You didn’t choose a damn thing. I reached out. You answered. Deal with it!”
“You self-righteous jerk. Do you believe that you’re the only person on God’s green Earth who owns valid reason to shun others? Of all people, I thought you’d understand what it’s like to be alone no matter how many people are around. If you weren’t so worried about upsetting your safe little world, you’d realize what it took for us to get this far and you’d open your eyes and let us in.”
“Are you through?” At her stiff nod, as those blazing cobalt-blue eyes accosted me, I asked, “Why the touching restrictions if you aren’t frightened of letting me in? What horror from yesterday becomes my touch today?”
Squinty and narrowed eyes widened as passionate anger receded. Tides of emotion now pooled in the corners. Sorrow-burdened shoulders drooped. Her mouth turned down and her eyes went distant. Molten anguish disguised as hot tears slashed my chest, flaying flesh deeper than bear claws might have scratched. It was fair to say that I did not think much of myself at that moment.
“Must you always take aim for the unbearable? Have you no mercy left at all?” she accused and collapsed to my chest, a wreck.
I wrapped my arms around her and cradled her close. Rather than pull away, she burrowed her face into my neck and shoulder, which muffled her sobs as she accepted solace from the person who had roused her pain. We both knew that she grieved for the person she no longer was and never would be again. We shared that sorrow. She hugged me fiercely, professing how close we had grown, increasing my desire to retreat. With surgical precision, my question had cut to the quick. We had forever been blunt. Never a soft word to infect an open wound. We forwent refinement and aimed for the heart, daring the other to go one step beyond reasonable. It’s how we existed with our untold secrets buried just below the surface. We did not fool the other even for a moment, but we pretended that we did.
Blunt honesty hurt. It exposed our inner selves like a nerve. It bound us. It was our foundation and our refuge from a politically correct society that rarely said what it meant and seldom meant what it said. I had once isolated myself to avoid these baffling intricacies. Now, here I was, hip-deep with a rape victim: my boss’s daughter. Canadian geese migrating north to winter owned more common sense than I did. In spite of our friendship, or because of it, I craved solitude nearly as much as I desired Odera. Odera stayed within our embrace, seeming to understand our impasse. I was glad that one of us understood something.
“You’re a dumbass,” she told me after using my T-shirt to blow her nose and daub her eyes. “It doesn’t matter that you were right; that only made it worse.”
“I know and, I know.”
As if Odera felt my conflict, she hugged me tighter. I wanted to assure her that everything would be okay, but the words had no voice. Life had taught each of us that whatever does not kill you does not always make you stronger. Sometimes it inflicts great emotional damage that haunts sleep and seeps into daylight. And then I remembered that I was a reflection of those around me, just as they were a reflection of me, which meant that I was just as broken and damaged as the next person. Ignorance is not bliss. Innocence is bliss; ignorance is curable.