Having a friend is always a great thing. When you have someone to talk to, to laugh with, to share your worries with. But if the person who is determined to be your friend and nothing more is the person you have a silly little crush on, things get complicated, and even more so when you’re carrying someone else’s baby.
So for the past week, I did my best to accept Jack’s offer of friendship. We met almost every day. We talked, we laughed, he listened to my worries. But we didn’t touch, and Jack still hasn’t shared his story with me, so all I can do is be patient. And not touch him. Which is getting harder and harder.
And now I’m here, at his sister’s house, and see this. When Paul and I walk out of the house, I spot Jack talking to this girl. A very pretty girl, I have to admit. A blonde bob frames her beautiful face, and her slim figure and ample cleavage are displayed nicely in the short dress she’s wearing.
When she seems to say goodbye, it happens. She gives him a peck on the cheek and hugs him. Hugs him! And he hugs her back! And what’s worse, she’s running her fingers through his hair. Just like I imagined doing it more than once.
Why the fuck can she touch him?
I can’t stop staring at them, and weird feelings rise within me. Something I can only describe as a mixture of anger and jealousy. “Paul?” I say with my eyes still fixed on them.
“Who is that over there with Jack?” Out of the corner of my eye, I see Paul look around until his gaze falls on the pair that is currently making my blood boil.
“Oh,” Paul says, the surprise obvious in his voice. “That’s Kate. His, uhm – ex.”
“His ex?” I ask way too shrill. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Emma,” Paul says in a soothing voice. “That doesn’t mean anything!”
I snort. “I have a different impression.” I cross my arms in front of my chest as I see Jack look over to me. His eyes widen which means he knows that I saw everything. He frowns and walks over, hands buried in the pockets of his jeans. The guilty look on his face tells me exactly this does mean something.
“Emma,” he says quietly once he’s standing in front of me. “I – I don’t–,” he sighs. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
I take a deep breath and hold up my hand. “Jack, it’s fine!”
Fuck no, it’s not! But I can’t tell him that. I can’t tell him that I’m jealous of some girl that hugged him and fucking ran her stupid fingers through his hair. Because he’s just a friend. Nothing more.
“No, it’s not,” Jack says. “I know I owe you an explanation. Not here, though. Come on, let’s go.”
And before I can protest or react in any kind of way, we say goodbye and get into Jack’s car. He’s taking me back home, he says, where he will explain everything. He doesn’t say a single word on the drive to my apartment. I repeatedly look over to him, but his gaze is fixed on the road, his knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel so hard. Whatever this is, it’s stressing him out.
He still doesn’t talk when we walk into my apartment. I close the door behind us and follow him into my living room. “Do you want a drink?” I ask him.
He turns to me and just shakes his head while he nervously runs his fingers through his hair.
“Jack–” I gently put my hand on his arm, and as usual, he flinches.
“Hug me,” he says quietly.
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“Hug me,” he repeats. His face is showing no emotion, and I can read nothing from his expression. I narrow my eyes at him, trying to figure out what’s gotten into him.
“Dammit, Emma, hug me!” he says a little more forcefully now as he grabs my arm and pulls me into him.
I gasp but wrap my arms around his middle and rest my head on his shoulder. Jack reaches behind him and takes my hand to pull it in front and place it on his chest, over his heart. Under my hand, I can feel his steady heartbeat that is already a little faster than normal.
I want to enjoy this, want to relish the closeness that I’ve been craving. But I can sense his unease, and I wonder what he’s doing. “Jack–,” I whisper.
He tightens his grip on me, pulling me even closer. “Can you feel it?” he asks as he squeezes my hand that I press against his chest. I nod. Yes, I feel his heartbeat accelerate, just as I feel his breathing become more erratic. He inhales deeply, again and again to a point where I think that he’s close to hyperventilating. His heart is pounding, and I feel him tremble. “Fuck, Jack! What–”
“This is what happens when people touch me,” Jack says when he finally lets go of me. He turns away from me and bends over at the waist, resting his hands on his thighs, trying to calm his breathing. After a few moments, he straightens up and looks at me. “That’s why I always pull back – to avoid an anxiety attack.”
I stare at him, blinking, desperately trying to understand. “But why?”
Jack takes a deep breath when he drops down on my couch. He tilts his head back and squeezes his eyes shut before he turns to me. He gestures for me to sit next to him, which I do.
“A little over ten years ago – there was this girl,” he says quietly without looking at me. “Her name was Audrey.”
He nods. “Yes, was. She was my girlfriend.” He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, nervously playing with his hands. “I was still living in Boston where I grew up,” he continues at a very slow pace, waiting a few seconds after every sentence to start the next. “It was the summer after we finished high school – We had only been together for a few months – Before her, I had been dating lots of different girls – All meaningless flings – But she was – different – I was madly in love with her and could already see us spending the rest of our lives together.” He takes another deep breath before he turns to look at me. I frown at the heartbroken tone of his voice and his sad expression, and I have this spontaneous urge to touch him. But I hold back for obvious reasons.
“This one night–,” he goes on, “I was out of town to visit family. Audrey attended a party with friends.” He lowers his gaze and whispers, “She never returned home from that party.”
I cover my mouth with my hand, and my eyes fill with tears when I see the anguish on Jack’s face.
“She wanted to go home early and refused anyone who offered to take her.” He laughs humorlessly. “A couple of weeks later, her body was found. The police said she had been raped and strangled – And all I could think of was how some bastard touched her, ultimately causing her death with his bare hands.” He gets up from the couch and walks up and down. He’s getting a little hectic when he runs his hand over his face and groans. “Everyone was devastated of course,” he says with a heavy sigh. “Everyone was trying to assuage the other’s pain and grief. And almost everyone does that by hugging or touching you. And while people’s touch was meant to give comfort,” he explains as he stops and looks at me, “at some point, it did the opposite to me.”
Seeing him like this breaks my heart. I can feel the pain that he’s still carrying around with him. I have no words. Honestly, there are no words. So I just let him continue.
“It started in a rather harmless way,” he says with another sigh, “with just an uneasy feeling when someone hugged me.” He briefly looks up to the ceiling and shudders. “It gradually worsened though. Up to the day when I had my first panic attack. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I didn’t want to be touched. And somehow, it took on a life of its own.”
He’s still standing in front of me, giving me a look of utter despair. I get up from the couch too and stand just inches away from him, looking at him with tear-glazed eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper, and I lift my hand, but instead of touching him like I desperately want to, I cover my mouth with my fingers.
Jack frowns. “See, this is what most people’s reaction is. They want to hug you, give you comfort with physical closeness. Be it an embrace or just a hand placed on your shoulder, just a small sign telling you I’m here for you. But this is what makes me lose my shit. I can’t help it. It’s a physical reaction I have no control over. At some point, my mom was so worried that I agreed to see a therapist. But he couldn’t help me. It didn’t change anything. He told me it was no use until I wanted to get over it.”
While he talks, we’re still facing each other, him with his hands in his pockets and me grabbing my shirt with both my hands, so I don’t reach out to him. “Why didn’t you want to tell me?” I ask.
“Because whenever I tell people, they look at me differently. They pity me, and they want to comfort me in some way.” He lowers his gaze before he whispers, “And I liked the way you looked at me. I didn’t want to lose that.”
“Oh, Jack!” I sigh. “I’m sorry you had to go through something like that. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. You’re right—I want to touch you to give you comfort.” I grimace and take a deep breath. I’m lost for words. Damn, that was intense! I drop back down on the couch, tuck my knees up and wrap my arms around my legs.
Jack sits down next to me with a sigh. “I hate this part.”
I nod. I can understand his reluctance now. “Thanks for sharing that with me.” I turn my head to look at him. “Can you tell me now who Kate is?”
He lets out a long breath of air and averts his gaze when he says, “Kate was my fake girlfriend.”
I look at him with raised eyebrows. “Your what?”
He’s still not looking at me but rests his elbows on his knees and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. “She lived next door to me, and we became friends. I told her my story and how my mom was freaking out, worried sick about my behavior. So Kate offered me her help. She would pretend to be my girlfriend. She accompanied me to family events so my mom could finally be at ease again. And at some point, I introduced her to my friends. And only her and Paul knew the truth.”
“How long were you – together?” I ask quietly.
Finally, he looks up again and meets my gaze. “Close to a year. We ended it because she was transferred to Atlanta.”
I get up from the couch and pace up and down. Now I can’t look at him. “But how–” I can’t even finish the question that I’m dying to ask.
“How can I touch her?” he asks for me.
I stop and turn to him. A cold shiver runs down my spine, and I’m not sure why. I nod and look at him expectantly.
“I forced myself. At first, there was no PDA at all. I wouldn’t touch her, and she wouldn’t touch me when we were meeting my family and friends. But for some reason, my mom got suspicious. So we practiced. I had a lot of anxiety attacks, but in the end, I forced myself, and it worked. At some point, I didn’t freak out anymore. But it still only works with her. No one else can touch me. Neither my parents nor my siblings. As for my mom and dad, or anyone who doesn’t know or respect my wish for distance – well, I endure their touch.” He takes a deep breath. “I was a little surprised actually that Kate could hug me today. I haven’t seen her for almost two years. But it puts me in a hopeful mood that maybe one day I will get over this.”
While I sit back down on the couch next to him, I let his words sink in. This is a lot to process, and I still have so many questions, which I’m sure he knows. I look at him, and I’m surprised not to see a closed-off expression on his face. I know he’s willing to answer all those questions.
And there’s one question I need to ask first. “Jack?”
“Hm?” He gives me a gentle smile as if he was sensing at least some parts of my confused inner monologue.
“What is this?” I point to him and then to me.
He furrows his brows and sighs. “I don’t know. I only know that I have to work on my issues and that you should concentrate on your baby. I don’t know where this might lead one day. But for now, I’d love to be your friend. Can we agree on that?”
I nod, sighing as well. He’s right. Maybe acting on the feelings that I have for him—and the ones he might have for me—isn’t the smartest thing to do right now.
I can’t help but wonder – if he ever decided to be more to me than a friend, would he have to force himself too?