He held her. He didn’t know what else to do. Nothing worked. Fissures of pain traversed his heart, and bands of steel crisscrossed his chest as he attempted to push air into his lungs. His limbs didn’t feel connected to his torso. He alternated between numbness and being wrenched open in pain. His eyes were burning, acid leaking from them as he squeezed the lids tighter. He was not functioning, and he knew it.
He couldn’t let Jen see him like this. If she saw him falling to pieces, she’d have no respect for him. She knew his history, he’d lived up to his promise and told her the ugly truth. It had been harder than he’d thought it was going to be. He’d had to block out everything just to get it all out. Each word had sent a stabbing pain through him. Especially talking about her. Speaking that name didn’t get any easier. She’d left him years ago, and he still couldn’t think of her without his heart bleeding.
Amongst all this, the horror story that was his romantic history, Jen had sat there. Then when she’d stood, he’d felt his centre plummeting, he’d been just about to fall to his knees and beg her not to go. Despite everything he’d said and the confidence he’d attempted to portray, he’d had no intention of letting her leave without beseeching her, pleading with her to stay. Shame wasn’t an option if she turned towards that door. But she didn’t. Just as he’d been about to prostrate himself, she’d stood before him and said the words that he was still having trouble believing.
She’d stayed. She was in his arms and not leaving. The words she’d said to him, played over and over in his head. It seemed unreal that after everything she’d heard that she was willing to be here with him. He held her tightly as he waited for the dream to be over and her to struggle her way off his lap and into his nightmare. She wasn’t fighting him. Did that mean that he’d heard her correctly? Were her words genuine? It was true? She wasn’t going to walk away from him?
Ever since he’d woken up with her in his bed, he’d been struggling with this. When he’d got out of the shower and found her gone, he’d panicked, and that was the start of it. Every moment with her, every time something happened that pulled her away from him, he’d felt the fear building within him. The jealousy had crept in as he fell deeper into the void. He needed her more and more each minute he was with her.
All his muscles ached with the result of this need. They were locked in tension, and the lactic acid had built up to such a degree that he was in physical pain. But he knew he couldn’t relax. He didn’t know how to do what was necessary to let go of the pain. If he released her from his arms would she bolt for the door? If he loosened the knots in his body, there was a chance that the tears would be free to fall, his chest would release that sobbing, wrenched sound that was fighting to be let out, and she would see him for the pathetic man he was. He needed to control himself.
“Drew,” she whispered as she wriggled against his hold, “Talk to me, Drew?”
He didn’t answer her. He couldn’t speak. Speaking required him to move his jaw, and that was cemented in place. He could feel himself still waiting for her to change her mind.
“Look at me Drew,” she asked as he locked his neck muscles in place, “I’m not leaving you.”
“Are you sure?” the words came out his clenched teeth on their own.
“Yes,” her answer was simple and uncomplicated.
“Why?” he didn’t want to ask, just in case it made her realise the error, but somehow, he couldn’t stop the question, “Why would you want to do that?”
“Because I saw a naked man today,” she spoke slowly with apprehension in her voice, “Not the nude man, you understand, but the naked man. And I think I can see him now.”
Drew’s eyes widened as he realised what she was saying.
“He’s scarred and injured,” she whispered, “He’s bleeding and in pain. He’s scared and fears being hurt again. He’s not perfect.”
“He sounds like a freak,” Drew grimaced as he waited for the blow.
“He’s not,” she held his eyes, “He’s beautiful, and he’s flawed. He’s fragile but has a huge heart. I want to get to know him. I want that man to trust me.”
“How?” he asked as he looked away, his shoulders dropping as his arms shifted to hold her without squashing her, “If he’s so damaged, how can he trust anyone?”
“That’s the tricky part,” she paused, lifting her head off his chest as her arms found their way from being pinned against him, out and around him, “He could start by admitting that how he feels. Maybe if he shares his fears, they won’t weigh so much?”
“You know his pathetic past,” he released a long breath, “Isn’t that enough?”
“No,” she smiled, “I want more. There’s nothing I can do about the past. I want to share the future with him. I want to know what he’s thinking and feeling, right now.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t want to know how worthless he is,” Drew scoffed as he shook his head, “You’d run a mile if you knew what a loser that guy is.”
“Actually,” she smiled as she moved her head, off his chest and looked up into his face, “I think I’d like him more. I can’t promise anything, but I think I’d really like to get to know that man.”
He searched her face. Her cheeks blushed, but she didn’t shy away from his scrutiny. His heart was beating fast, but the pain was lessened. There was something else coursing through him now. His muscles tingled as the blood rushed back into them. He felt the optimism flowing through him. Was it too early to hope?
“What if you don’t like him?” his eyes flinched as he made himself ask the question, “What if I expose all my faults to you and it’s too much? I’ve fallen in love with you already, Jen. How will I cope if you take one look at the real me and decide that I’m too messed up to be bothered with?”
“But what if I don’t do that?” with a gentle smile she sent his question back to him. She kept her voice calm, and there was no uncertainty in her tone, “Isn’t that what attracted you to me? You said you thought I could love you for who you are, and that was what you needed. Trust your first impression of me. I am more likely to love the naked man than the famous one who wears a mask.”
“Maybe,” he sat back and looked at her, “This isn’t going to be easy, Jen.”
“I know,” she smiled at his relaxed by serious face, “But I’d like to try.”
He didn’t know how to answer that. He wanted to celebrate, but there was something he needed to clarify before he could allow himself that luxury. He forced himself to look into her eyes as he prepared himself to ask the question.
“Will you be my girlfriend,” his voice was shaking, he coughed a sharp exhale in an unsuccessful attempt to clear the fear, “Will you be mine? I need everyone to know that you’re with me.”
“I want that too, but,” she grimaced a little, “I need something from you in return.”
His body contracted again.
“You are right, this isn’t going to be easy,” she whispered, “I need you to realise that we have a long way to go before we will be in an intimate relationship. I will be your girlfriend, but we need a relationship of trust before we move forward.”
“Trust goes both ways,” he replied, “You know that I have issues and now you know why. But what about you? Are you going to trust me? Are you going, to be honest with me?”
“I am, aren’t I?”
“I’ve just asked you to be my girlfriend,” he frowned, “And you made that into a point of negotiation. Is that what this is to you? Don’t you feel anything at all towards me?”
“’That wasn’t,” she opened and closed her mouth again but didn’t say anything more.
“If you are staying then you need to be here,” he said quietly, “No more of the hot and cold attitude and no more blocking me out. I’ve been honest with you, it’s your turn now.”
“I’m not sure how to do that,” she closed her eyes as she looked pained, “I have no experience with this. This is new to me.”
“I know that,” he frowned. “I understand, but I’m just asking you to trust me too. I have baggage, but I’m not a bad person. I’m staying with you too.”
He was staying. Those words clicked in her head. That was true. She’d promised to stay with him, but he’d also made a commitment to her that, despite her doubts and the voice in her head that didn’t believe it, she couldn’t ignore that.
“You’re right, I suppose,” she exhaled, “I like you, I’ve already told you that. The rest? I don’t know? I want everything, all at once, and I hate seeing you in pain. My heart beats like a racehorse every time I’m near you, and I ache for you. I don’t know if this is love or just infatuation.”
“It sounds like love to me,” his eyes searched hers.
“You’re biased,” she rolled her eyes at him as she smiled.
“True,” he said, “But that doesn’t make me wrong. Why are you resisting it?”
“Because it scares me,” she sniffed a short laugh.
“You said that before,” he frowned, “Why? What scares you?
“I don’t understand any of this,” she shook her head, “It doesn’t make sense why you’d want me. I am not beautiful, smart, elegant or witty. I’m just me. I’ve heard what you said, and I’m scared that either you’ll wake up to that fact and leave me, or I’ll be forced to do something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I don’t want that either,” he whispered, “But you aren’t leaving. You’re willing to give me an opportunity to show you that what I feel is genuine and that we can be together. I won’t fail.”
“I told you that I would stay,” she opened her mouth and closed it before she spoke, “Do you get panic attacks often?”
“What?” he turned away, “That wasn’t a panic attack.”
She looked at him and waited.
“That, that hasn’t happened before,” he sighed, “But that’s probably because I’m usually too drunk by this stage. I can’t deal with my past without alcohol. It helps numb the pain.”
“What about now?” she asked as she glanced at his hands which were in fists, “Do you want to drink now?”
“Yes,” he said without any doubt, “I’m not an alcoholic. I only get this way when I remember. I just hate myself and how pathetic I’ve been.”
“But not at the moment?” she looked around the apartment, checking to see if there were any bottles of spirits in sight.
“There’s a full cupboard of the stuff in the kitchen,” he smiled at her obviousness, “But I made a promise to you. I will keep my promises to you. Breaking that promise will cause me more pain than I’m feeling. I won’t drink as long as you stay with me.”
“Thanks,” she shifted in her chair, “That means a lot to me.”
“There are a couple of other things that I need to know,” he felt himself tense up, “I know this isn’t the right time and I shouldn’t be asking this, but I have no choice. I have to know.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“Was it good for you?” he grimaced, “I really don’t want to ask this but, do you want me? Sexually, I mean. Are you attracted to me or was it not good for you?”
“Are you joking?” she laughed out aloud as she blushed a deep colour, “Are you seriously asking me that?”
“Well, yes,” he frowned, “You were sober, and I was drunk for most of it, so I’m not sure my performance was adequate.”
“Oh,” she turned and blushed even more.
“And you seem to be avoiding a repeat performance,” he looked away, “Did I embarrass myself?”
“No,” she refused to look at him while she answered.
“I mean,” he pressed on, “I remember it as amazing. But maybe that was one-sided? If I didn’t satisfy you, then I need to know.”
“No,” she repeated still not looking at him.
“I didn’t? You didn’t?” he stuttered.
“No, that’s not what I mean,” she dropped her head into her hands, “It was really good.”
“Good?” he exhaled with a grimace, “That’s not exactly what I was going for.”
“Alright,” she relented, “It was unbelievable. You had me in pieces, and every time you kiss me, I want to jump you.”
“So, you do want me?” he opened his eyes innocently, “You want me just as much as I want you? Is that right?”
“Yes,” she admitted with an exhale as she dropped her face into her hands to hide the blushing.
“It’s about time,” he breathed his relief, “I was starting to think that I was going to die before you’d admit that.”
“What?” she looked up at him, confused.
“I’m a man, Jen,” he shrugged one shoulder, “Having you turn my advances down continuously, knocks a guy’s confidence. It makes me feel better to know that I’ve conquered your lips, your sex and now I just need to work on that head of yours.”
“You’re impossible,” she shook her head.
“I think I’ve just proven that what I want isn’t impossible,” he smiled, “Girlfriend.”
She looked at him carefully before she spoke, “Did you just put the mask back on?”
“What?” he blinked as he realised what she’d said.
She was right. When everything got too threatening, he did do this. Disarming the situation with his brand of charm and innuendo, took the edge off a difficult situation. It was his coping mechanism. The fact she’d seen through that, had him speechless for a minute.
“I thought you said that you liked this side of me,” he scrunched his fists as he mumbled the words to the floor, “You said that you liked the teasing.”
“I do,” she smiled, “I like the way your eyes sparkle when you tease me. But this wasn’t that. This was you forcing yourself to be that person. I like it when it comes naturally.”
“It’s probably because I’m tired,” he forced himself to say, “I didn’t sleep last night.”
She waited for him to find more substance to his excuse.
“But you’re right,” he looked away with a frown, “I’m exhausted and trying too hard. And if I say anything else, I’m likely to choke on my own foot, and that would make it difficult to stop you from leaving.”
“I’m not leaving,” she tilted her head as she said that.
“You say that,” he frowned, “But it’s going to take more than words to convince me. We will see.”
“What will convince you of that?” she asked.
“There is something. It’s the other thing I need to talk to you about,” he pulled a tight face, “But I’m not going to do that now. We can talk about that later.”
“When?” she asked curiously as to what it was. He’d been open about everything so the fact that he was hiding this heightened her curiosity.
“That’s a good question,” he frowned, “We have a full schedule this weekend.”
“Really? What are we doing?” she was thinking about fun stuff as she asked.
“Tomorrow I have rehearsal for most of the day,” he stood and smoothed his shirt down, “Then there are two performances, the opening on Friday, which will be the red-carpet event, then Saturday Night. Between the shows, midday Saturday, there is the Garden Party and Luncheon.”
“All of that?” she gasped, “And how much am I expected to attend?”
“What bit of ‘never leaving me’ didn’t you mean?” he frowned as he narrowed his eyes, “Having an anxiety attack in the middle of a performance isn’t very sexy and wouldn’t help with future bookings.”
“I thought you didn’t have anxiety attacks?”
“I don’t. But if I did,” his words trailed off as he tried to think of what to say next and couldn’t. He closed his eyes and asked in a small voice, “Please, just for this weekend?”
“Alright,” she confirmed, “I’ll be where you need me. But, if I’m going to be dragged through all that, I’m going to need a quiet night tonight.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he’d have to sleep on the sofa bed, but he didn’t care. She would be here, and that was all he needed. The exhaustion he’d been keeping at bay, started to seep in and he could feel his eyes drooping.
They ate a meal from what they found in the fridge, and then he pulled out the temporary bed and was asleep almost before he could warn her against leaving him in the middle of the night. Even so, the words came out slightly slurred, and her returning promise was accompanied by a soft giggle which didn’t inspire confidence, but he wasn’t in a position to extract something better. He slept hoping he’d done enough to keep her there.