“One minute.” The words leave my mouth before the voice even registers in my head. After the initial shock, a sense of nostalgia washes over me. It’s always been like this before. Every time we go out, she’d come in just at the right time for me to finish put on the last piece of clothing I’m wearing for the day. Realizing my mistake, I remind Jan, “Please knock next time.”
Instead of the dismissive statement I was expecting, only a look of resignation and a murmured “okay,” is what I get.
I’ve noted these changes in Jan for the past weeks. She spends more time in our house than hers, hence the unavoidable interaction. When Alex comes over, she makes herself scarce. The two have managed to keep their interactions minimal and I couldn’t be more thankful for it. Although they are civil to each other, there’s still an almost palpable tension between them whenever they share the same space. Jan’s calmer, more amiable, and starting to be like the Jan I used to know. So when she asked me to take her to my mother’s grave, I didn’t have the heart to tell her no. My mom treated her as if she were her own child, and after losing her mother at a young age, I know Jan also looked at her as if she were her own.
The only concession I made at her request was Alex’s approval. I expected Alex to get mad. But instead, she wasn’t even a little bit annoyed. The way she handled the situation made me love her a little more. The conversation we had in the hot tub doesn’t fail to warm my heart—and the things we did after warmed other places.
After sending a quick text to Alex saying we were about to leave, I drive to the cemetery. Jan and I both remain silent throughout the drive until my phone beeps with a reply from Alex. One of Alex’s quirks is her insanely slow replies—which is crazy because she’s always with her phone. I open the message at the next red light.
Take care :)
Just those two words. No I trust you or anything that sends the same message. She doesn’t need to.
“Is it really okay with her? Us going out together?” Jan speaks for the first time since we got in the car.
“She isn’t mad?”
“No.” I know full well where Jan’s skepticism comes from. If their situations were reversed, she never would’ve let me come with Alex. She can be a little controlling in that department. When we were together, where I go, she goes. “I don’t even know if she’s capable of getting mad.” Also true. Yes, she easily gets annoyed, but just as quickly gets over it.
Jan crosses her arms in front of her chest. “How noble of her.” At that moment, her phone rings. Upon checking the caller, she frowns and rejects the call. It rings again and after again rejecting the call, Jan turns off her phone, muttering something under her breath.
“Isn’t that important?” I ask.
“What exactly do you do now?”
Jan shrugs. “My dad’s business is mine now. I’m just keeping things running.” She turns slightly toward me. “And figure skating. Clara told me you stopped. Why?”
“I got tired of it,” is what I say, but the truth is every time I enter the rink, all I can think of is her and I can’t bear to be at a place where I can feel her absence almost physically.
Ice is where Jan shines the most. From the way she puts on her skates like it’s second nature, to the way her entire demeanor changes once she steps on the ice. There’s something about the way she glides and strides, like she’s born to be there. And when she starts her routine, I can never take my eyes off her.
The first time I came across her name was two years after she left. I was at the editorial office, sorting out paperwork when I came across a front-page headline that read, Janelle Stratton Wins Women’s Figure Skating World Title. Her picture was shown above the headline in black and white, taken just after she landed a triple axel. The same move that gave her multiple injuries and she wasn’t able to nail even once when we were training together. I watched her try and fail to do it a thousand times. Every time, she got up and promised, “I’ll fucking nail this.” Now she did—beautifully and perfectly.
Before that, I thought I was doing okay. I’ve managed to regain a semblance of a normal life without her. Then she pops up out of nowhere and makes me realize I’m still as broken as the day she left me. I asked the editor-in-chief that time if I can leave early because of an emergency—namely me breaking down, but I didn’t tell her that—and left abruptly.
I was able to reach as far as my car before I broke down. Jan was out there, for all the world to see and celebrate and I’m alone, crying my heart out, still hopelessly in love with her. If she’s already competing, what’s stopping her from coming back? The only answer I could come up with was: she doesn’t want to. Seeing as how she’s finally achieving her dreams and perfectly happy where she is right now, I didn’t see how I’d fit into the equation. It served as a wake-up call. She’s never coming back. That was what I told myself until I saw her again outside the restaurant where my world once again turned upside down.
A honk from the car behind startles me out of my thoughts. The light has turned green. With jerky movements, I accelerate. With a glance to my side, I see that Jan is looking at me like she was expecting an answer. “Sorry, what was that? I drifted off for a moment there.”
“I said you love skating. I don’t believe you got tired of it,” she repeats.
“No, I love seeing you skate. I did it because I liked spending time with you.” I leave it at that, leaving her to decipher what I don’t say. That since she was gone, I didn’t have any reason to skate anymore. “Congratulations on winning the Worlds, by the way. And for landing that triple axel.”
“Oh.” Jan blinks. “Thank you. It was a bitch to perfect, but I bet you would’ve done it in half the time I did.”
“I never even tried it.” I’m happy with just the double axel and didn’t feel the need to master the triple.
“That’s just it—you never tried. You were always better than me at picking up new moves. You sure you don’t want to compete anymore?”
I ponder the thought. It’s true that I did like figure skating, but it’s not something I see myself doing in the future, especially competing internationally. “I think I’ll stick to just making it a hobby.”
Jan nods. “That’s good. Zoe could use the help. She’s been bugging me to help her with the Lutz. Can you believe she still takes off on the wrong edge?”
“Oh, I don’t know, it might just be her purposely messing up so you could teach her.”
“Please.” I roll my eyes. “She’s had the biggest crush on you for as long as I can remember. She must be thrilled to have you back.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jan says, her face the picture of innocence. “She’s straight.”
I chuckle. “I know you don’t. You’ve always been oblivious to those kinds of things.” And you’ve always only had eyes for me. “And her sexuality’s beside the point. I’m saying if she thought there’s a possibility you might be into her, she’ll jump at the chance to be with you.”
Jan crinkles her nose. “I’ll pass, thank you.”
We arrive at the cemetery shortly and at the first look on my mother’s grave, Jan’s body goes rigid, as if the reality of my mother’s death just hit her after seeing the name engraved on the headstone.
I shove my hands into my coat’s pockets as Jan bends down to place a bouquet of flowers and light two candles in front of it. Sensing she needed a moment to be alone, I say, “I’ll give you some space.” I wait for her slight nod before making my way far enough out of earshot, but still keeping her within my sight.
Tugging my coat closer to my body, I stare at Jan’s back. Her usual ramrod straight posture was crumbling by the minute. When she raises her arm to wipe her eyes, I almost join her and offer a handkerchief. Then I remember I don’t own any, and all I have are Alex’s—which I didn’t bring with me. I’ve never had a penchant for the square pieces of cloth, but after Alex, I find every reason—from dirtying my fingers to sweating a lot—for her to lend me one. I never give it back.
When Jan finally looks around and catches my eye, I rejoin her. “I should’ve been there for you.” Jan’s voice was barely a whisper I almost don’t catch it.
“But you weren’t.”
She turns her head to look at me. The weary and somber expression, combined with her red-rimmed eyes disarms me. In those forest-green orbs, I see everything she didn’t have the words for. “Things will never go back to the way they were before, will they?” Knowing we both know the answer to her question, she urges on, “I don’t know if it’s right to tell you this, or even if I should, but Sharon knew about my plans.”
This time, my body goes rigid. “What?”
“Please don’t hold it against her, she was just trying to help,” Jan says hastily. “She has always understood me, and I didn’t have anyone I can trust not to tell my father. She set up the groundwork for the case I built up against him that put him behind bars. The only thing she asked for in exchange was that I come back for you. To you.”
“You’re lying.” Even as I say the words, a feeling of dread settles on my stomach. There’s no way someone could just disappear the way Jan did. And to do it with a powerful father searching high and low with contacts everywhere is almost impossible. When Jan’s father came knocking on our door demanding to know where his daughter is, he yielded under my mother’s sharp recrimination.
“Not to you. Never to you.”
All the times my mother told me with absolute certainty that Jan will come back makes more sense now. How could she? How could they? The air seems to grow hotter around me, but it might just be because of the blood boiling underneath my skin. Jan tries to reach out to me but I slap her hand away. “Don’t touch me!” I start to march away but Jan grabs me by the wrist and halts my progress.
“She wanted to protect both of us, Alex. Do you really think your mother would approve of what I did if there was another way?”
“Now you’re the one lying to yourself.” Jan releases her hold, but she’s still close enough to touch.
“This doesn’t change anything.” Except it does. That meant my mom thought it was the best for both of us. She thought it was better if I didn’t know. And that Jan did the right thing. My anger deflates.
“I know it doesn’t. I just wanted you to see it from my perspective.” Jan hangs her head, uncharacteristically timid. “And I was hoping you’ll forgive me.”
I let out a breath and tug my coat closer to my body, hoping it can also shield me from this revelation. “I already did,” I whisper. “From the moment I saw you.” Because after everything that happened, that was what was important—she came back.
Our eyes meet and again my defenses crumble to pieces. Jan blinks, the tears forming in her eyes sliding down to her cheeks.
I wipe her tears with the back of my index finger. “Did you really think I would make love to you if I haven’t forgiven you?” Sure, it was a moment of weakness, but I wanted it to happen. I wanted to feel her on my skin. That much I can admit to myself.
Before I can pull away my hand, Jan captures it with her own. “You don’t know how much that means to me.” She exhales as if a huge weight is taken off her chest. Then she pulls me in for a hug.
I let myself be taken. We both sink into each other’s arms as we’ve done a million times before. Jan clutches me tighter than she’s ever had. It could’ve been mere seconds or minutes, but I don’t care. We both needed this.
When the hug finally breaks, Jan plants a kiss on my forehead. She smiles a smile that makes my heart ache a little and asks, “Wanna stop for some coffee on the way back?”