Never Look Back

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Chapter 27

Robert and I worked side by side Saturday morning. Twin thirty-storey structures that contained residential multi-unit dwellings above the tenth floor, commercial space on the first five floors and parking in between, needed modernization. The buildings were twenty years old. Renovations were part of a give and take deal with the largest general contractor in the city. One of their preferred customers owned a share of the structures. If Robert agreed to modernize these two buildings at a reasonable profit margin, Hidden Oaks would be awarded an ultra-modern architectural contract with an option to purchase realty shares. Working alongside Robert also alleviated my hunch that Odera planned to make an appearance. She, too, worked overtime in the administration building. We were all swamped. After lunch, he tossed me the keys to lock up. On the way out the door, he said that he would review the results of my labours Monday. Having poured two cups of coffee, I lighted the first of two daily cigarettes: a pleasure afforded those awaiting execution.

The extra coffee went cold.

Odera never materialized. I went back to work, disappointed and happy our feud had not resolved itself. Even though I knew that I should be the one to seek her out first, I procrastinated hoping our differences would resolve themselves on their own. Time is supposed to heal all wounds and I was giving it a shot.

The afternoon passed slowly.

Come sundown, I stood and stretched. Almost finished, I thought to myself. I wondered if Odera was still on the property. I should go talk to her. If I returned for a few hours tomorrow to wrap up the small details that always seemed to require the most amount of time, I could claim success come Monday. Robert was a stickler about his architectural drawings. Before leaving, I rolled them up, placed them neatly into tubes, and then into cubbyholes. I had slid the last tube home and was turning for my coat when Odera entered the trailer hugging brown Chinese take-out bags.

“You really shouldn’t be surprised to see me.” She set the paper sacks on the desk and began unpacking. “Daddy thought you deserved a reward. Rewarding good deeds seem to run in our family.”

Odera’s giggle was infectious. Outstanding, I thought, relieved by the turn of events. I moved toward the food, ready to apologize for my poor behaviour. Harmony and balance reasserted itself. All of the stress, real and imagined, evaporated. When Odera turned from unpacking the last carton, and when I came within reach, her palm struck my cheek. A resounding smack! filled the trailer. Outstanding.

“How could you treat me like a hooker? If our friendship means anything at all, start talking.”

Out, standing in the rain I thought, ruefully rubbing my cheek. Whether it was confidence or courage that allowed her to confront me, it was appealing. Her audacity erased any residual resolve to isolate myself and it let me recognize at a new level how poorly I had behaved.

“Right, I owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have avoided you, and I should have talked to you days earlier. That was wrong.”

“Is that what you call a sincere apology? No, ‘I’m sorry it won’t happen again’, or ‘Please forgive me from the bottom of my mulish heart,’ or ‘how can I possibly make it up to you for being such an ass?’” A Great White shark grin appeared. “Wanna try again?”

“I’m saving my best for future transgressions. Should that day arrive, I’ll have an arsenal to draw from. My grand-pappy said the bedroom was the final battleground. Under the marriage gelding knife, males become willing victims, sliced and diced into servitude with control but an illusion.”

Odera’s face lost colour.

Tears welled. Her knees slowly bent. I put my hands on her shoulders and followed her to the floor. What had I said? Marriage gelding knife? Sliced and diced? Periodically, the oddest comments and scenes triggered unpredictable emotional reactions from her. For the second time in seven days, I felt small. Every time I opened my mouth, I rubbed a raw nerve. Rogue hiccups besieged her. Between bouts of hiccups she laughed and then sniffled and hiccupped some more before starting over at the beginning.

“Dinner at the restaurant of your choice if you can harmonize hiccups with laughter.”

I brushed the hair from her eyes. Odera laughed and sniffled as I pressed a napkin into her hand.

“Thank you ― Hiccup ― you must think me way messed up.”

“Do you want it straight up, or honey-glazed?”

“Surprise me, Sigmund.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put on a coat that buckled up the back with sleeves that reached past your knees. And I’d be suspicious of all headphones that fitted around your temples with a little bit of electrical conductor jelly.”

“Dare I request the sugar-coated ― Hiccup ― version?”

“That was it.”

“Another graduate from the school of wit enters the world to battle the mundane.”

“It’s not that I mind you sitting in my lap, but your tailbone is spearing my family heirlooms. Skootch over.”

“Too heavy for your old bones?”

“Yeah, all one hundred and forty pounds.”

“More.”

“Okay. One hundred and forty-one pounds.”

“Nice try, but you’re not getting out of the doghouse that easily. It’s natural for women who went through what I did to experience weight gain. Two years ago I was out of control. Now the correct number is much less than it was. My turn.” She squeezed my shoulders as if testing supermarket melons. “Two hundred ten even. Wait. Make that two-eighteen.”

“I thought people in this millennium were interested in IQs, not looks?”

“Depends what you have in mind,” she said giggling while holding out her hands to me. “Help me up.”

“Very punny. Did you get that from a fortune cookie? Speaking of which, I’m starved.”

As I reached for a container, she moved in front of me and blocked the way, saying “Uh, huh. You owe me ten bucks.”

“Didn’t your father say that I deserved a reward?”

“He did, but do you see MacDonald’s here? C’mon, up some cash,” she insisted, hand held palm up, protecting the food like a lioness guards her litter.

“I don’t seem to have my wallet.”

A pressed grin spread across her face, which was her way of warning me to beware, like the lantern fish that lured prey with a luminous appendage that glowed brightly in deep ocean darkness. When a visitor entered the light, the lantern fish dined heartily. Never walk towards the light.

Odera’s smile lit the room when she said, “Now that could be a problem. I might let you barter your meal.”

“Are we horse-trading?” I asked, unable to resist the lure.

“Compromise is cornerstone to all relationships.”

“Right,” I told her catching sight of a brown leather corner peeking out from behind her leg. “We’re compromising? That’s what this is about? You’re going to have to be clearer, I’m still learning Venusian.”

“You really don’t get it, do you? I mean, you aren’t able to verbalize what’s going on here, are you?”

“We’re compromising.”

“Partly. A pasta shop is celebrating its grand opening. If you were to persuade me to join you, I’ll share my exquisitely cold Chinese take-out and throw in a rather worn wallet.”

“What breed of inducement are we’re talking about? Nothing that’s going to chafe against my moral fibre?”

“I’m very partial to hugs, and Saturday afternoon tennis. You’ve been stingy with the first, other than the night at the Watchtower. And tennis would be fun cardio.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch, but I must be certain that you’re not still a rookie hugger for quality versus quantity reasons.”

Laughing outright, I held my arms out.

“I’m afraid that I’m a long time out of hugging form.”

“I’m a little rusty myself. The first rule of our renewed friendship is hugs. Tons of them. The second rule is we talk before you ignore me again. That hurt, Bruce.”

Odera came into my arms as I explained in a low voice, “I had to have distance. My own reasons. Even now it’s there, urging me to leave.”

“Sold, one icy-cold take-out.” In a softer voice, she asked, “Is it emotional immaturity or some other reason?”

“Don’t you ever let things go? You never quit.”

“We’ve that in common. Wouldn’t you rather hug than crawl into your shell? If not to me, then who? And how did a bit of sex push you away? Oh my God, we’ve known each other over a year. What’s the deal?”

“Do you come with an off switch?”

“Honesty is an acquired taste. C’mon, let’s eat.” She stepped to the table to open the food cartons saying, “You never answered my question.”

“I liked it better when you were angry and not so damn reasonable.”

“You’re sure that none of this has anything to do with my attack?”

“Positive. Though I’m disappointed in myself for not realizing earlier how poorly I behaved. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable response.”

“Well, yeah, you should be sorry for being a jerk. Oh, and do you call that feeble excuse about me being the boss’s daughter believable? Do you actually think I believe that lame stuff? I’m not some fat bimbo. You’re going to have to come up with a better reason. I recommend the truth.”

“You’re far from being fat; even further from a bimbo.”

“That was a nice thing to say. Now please don’t ruin it by saying something insensitive.” Letting several seconds pass to ensure my silence, she added, “You’re stalling. You do that whenever you’re uncomfortable. Now answer the question, or I’ll have to get tough with you.”

She shot me a tough-chic look, which looked sexy as hell.

“Something about you not being able to accept my touch angered me, which bled over to you. All I saw were the worst possible outcomes. I dug my own hole by omitting our status to Beck.”

“I’ll make you another deal. I won’t mention it again while you figure it out but tell me when you do. Don’t even try to say it’s because of Dad or Mike. I want to learn why you kept it from Mike Beck in the first place. Deceiving him only distracted you from the true reason.”

“That’s presumptuous,” I temporized and accepted stir-fried rice container.

“Perhaps, yet you didn’t deny it. Besides, you often leave unsaid what you most want to say.” When I remain silent, she asked, “Why am I always pulling teeth? Do you think it will go away if you bury your head in the sand?”

“For once, just once, let it go.” Her non-compliant look caused me to make an observation. “Must you delve to the bottom of every subject, every time?”

“You know how I dislike loose strings. And you didn’t complain when I delved beneath your shorts. Will you deny all emotions beyond what’s safe?”

“Do you mind? It was just some sex and a few kisses.”

“Apparently not to you, or you wouldn’t be so shocked and shaken.”

“You either.”

“No shit, Sherlock. You really don’t understand, do you? That’s it, isn’t it? The emotional stuff doesn’t connect with your brain. You show it and you feel it, but you can’t put it into words. Is that where your frustration originates?”

“Mansbridge. Zip it. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, you succeeded.”

“What? I want to understand why you turtled. Vesper Lake changed everything. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t have run. And you wouldn’t be here enduring this cross-examination.”

“Fine.”

“Good. While I’m not sorry, neither one of us was ready. Although, afterwards, I never felt closer to you. You can be so gentle and tender, but then you go and open your big mouth. Still, it was gratifying for a few seconds.”

“I got it. Eat up,” I said, begging silence with a look.

Frustration built in my chest. Who talked about this stuff? I much preferred the Armed Force’s motto: don’t ask, don’t tell.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why?” she urged and glared back, mimicking my consternation. “Ask me why, Bruce.”

“Why what?” I answered, lost in my own thoughts.

“Why I desired you ― why we connected. Why I acted impulsively. Why I was able to set aside my attack and crave you like ice cream. Must I connect all the dots? Check the bookstore for a copy of Emotions for Dummies. Your picture is on the cover.”

“Be quiet and eat,” I coaxed without anger. “Use your imagination.”

Odera set her carton down.

“At least tell me if you enjoyed it? Give me some hope that you’ve thought about this, that you haven’t just been running to reach oblivion. Please tell me it wasn’t just sex. Give me some hope that I might have some things figured out.”

“It’s not as though I faked pleasure. That’s a female thing,” I snorted with mirth, my defences shattered at the absurdity of her remark. “And, yes, it did bring us closer, but it also caused me to hurt you. It never occurred to me that ignoring you was hurtful, or immature. What’s that say about me? Can’t be good.”

Odera put her hand on mine.

“I forgive you. Truly. It’s not completely your fault that you’re a grown child. For the first time in years, I needed contact. It was weird. I couldn’t help myself. Some alien force pulled me to you.”

“Mansbridge,” I interrupted and bestowed a rueful grin, “if you don’t close your mouth, I’m going to force feed you an egg roll. I promise to ask in the future. Okay. Fine. It was everything you said. Really.”

“Good,” remarked Odera wearing a cuddly look. “I already knew that, but I wanted to hear you admit it to yourself. I’ll let it go now.”

“I doubt it, not unless you get your own way.”

“I usually do.”

“Better get used to disappointment.”

“Must you always have the last word? Can I give you a lift to the bookstore? By the way, when are you going to teach me to climb?”

“Dad taught me how to swim by throwing me out of the canoe and into the lake. Today’s not the day to visit the climbing wall.”

“Do you need a hug?”

In response to her vulpine grin, I lapsed into silence. Odera bounced to a new topic that filled my silence with thoughts about the computer network she coaxed her father toward purchasing. Somewhere during her oration, she switched from ‘I’ to ‘we’ statements. I glanced at the last warm egg roll, thought better of it and reached for more rice. Let Odera have it. She needed it to maintain her Marilyn Munroe shape. She caught my choice of dishes and smiled at me for being selfless. I kept silent. No need to disabuse her of the notion that I acted without ulterior motives. She should really know better by now.

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