Chapter 17 - Nate
For the better part of six months, I occupied real-estate on the heaven side of purgatory. My days were divine. My evenings were hellish. My nights were spent in restless sleep, waiting impatiently for the morning to come. For the first time, I did more than just survive my circumstances. Home didn’t change, but I no longer defined myself by what I suffered there. I defined myself by who I was and what I did in the daylight.
During the day, I was Alex’s boyfriend-- the guy whose hand she held in the hallway without a trace of shame or fear. I was a straight-A student, with signs of something called “promise” and my teachers and counselors talked to me like something other than a sad, hopeless statistic. I was a model employee with healthcare and life insurance and this crazy thing called a “savings account” that was growing every day.
Even at home, I was stronger. Tim was just as mean as always, and Marsha just as useless. I still laid awake every night, trying to discern sloppy, pass-out drunk sounds from rage-filled, predatory drunk sounds. I still slept on the floor by my bed more nights than not, with Trish tucked beneath my covers so Tim wouldn’t get her. I still made a habit of goading Tim into fights to distract him from his more dangerous desires.
The difference was in how those fights ended. I was no longer a skinny kid with nothing to lose, curled up on ratty carpet getting the shit kicked out of him. I was man. A man with a girl to protect, money for food, and a fierce and prideful sense of self. Even on the nights he caught me off guard, I never gave up and took it. I fought like hell, every time. I’d land a few punches, Tim would land a few, and when he got tired we’d walk away.
So the months ticked by, and I marked the time by landmarks.
In December, Alex received a thick packet in the mail from Caltech. She brought it out to the spot that night and we opened her acceptance letter together. She bawled her eyes out, caught somewhere between joy at her success, fear at the prospect of telling her father, and sadness at the knowledge that she’d be leaving me behind. It was adorable.
In January, a massive blizzard blew through town, shutting down schools for a week. Every day, I bundled the kids up in their Goodwill snow suits and drove across town to Al’s house. She and Tom joined us outside, and we built forts and snowmen and had epic snowball fights. Then we’d sit in her living room while our socks dried by the fireplace and drink hot cocoa and watch movies.
In February, I celebrated my first birthday. Technically, it was my 18th birthday, but it was the first one I’d ever celebrated. When I showed up to pick Alex up for school, she made me come inside and have pancakes with candles stuck in the top. I had to sit still and endure her and Tom’s awful, off-key rendition of the birthday song. When Alex went to get her bag, Tom pulled me aside and pressed a small, jagged rock into my hand. He described, to me, a magical place where he and Alex went when they got sad. A spot where everything bad went away. He told me the rock was from that spot, and that Alex had one just like it.
Alex’s present was an uncharacteristic spurt of rebellion. She dragged me out the back door of our school before lunch and we played hookie together-- albeit only for the two hours we usually spent at lunch and in study hall. She made me drive out to the lake outside of town and delivered up a surprise BJ right there in the cab of my truck. I could tell she’d done some research, because her technique was… creative. She used her teeth a little more than I would’ve liked, but in the end who was I to complain? I had a beautiful girl giving me a birthday blowjob in broad daylight. A beautiful girl whose family accepted me. What’s a little nerve-wracking toothiness in the face of all that awesome?
In March, Alex told her dad about Caltech. He was furious. He stopped speaking to her for three days. She was a nightmare to be around, oscillating every few minutes between sadness and anger, hurt and indignation, defeat and determination. At the end of the third day, I skipped out of my last class of the day, drove to her father’s church, and stuck my nose where it didn’t belong.
I didn’t spend much time in churches as a kid. In fact I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been in one. One of my foster families, way back in the day, were devout catholics. I remembered the whole affair being very ornate. There were gaudy gold sceptres and a dangerous amount of candles, and a man wearing wizard robes chanting from the dais at the front.
Alex’s dad’s church was a little more subdued. The only ostentatious feature was the large, stained-glass window at the front of the room. The ceilings were vaulted, but both walls and ceiling were constructed entirely of white plaster and pine beams. The floor was stained cement. Even the preacher himself was a picture of modesty, in jeans and a polo shirt. He was squirrelled away in his tiny office in the basement of the church, which smelled of must and old books.
“I suppose my daughter sent you to beat some sense into me?” he asked with a glare, when I knocked on the open doorframe of his office. It wasn’t an unreasonable question, I guess. Tim had gotten in a few good shots two nights ago. Between the scraped up knuckles and the bruises, I looked like exactly the violence-prone asshole everyone thought I was.
“You know Alex wouldn’t send me to do her dirty work,” I said, letting myself into the office without invitation. “If she wanted to beat you up she’d do it herself.”
A smile tugged at one corner of the preacher’s mouth before his lips pinched together and the glare returned. With a sigh, he gestured at the chair opposite his desk and I sank into it. All of a sudden, I was nervous. What was I thinking, getting in the middle of their family business? Alex would kill me if she found out.
“Alex doesn’t know I’m here,” I said.
Her father cocked his head, frowning as he studied me. “So you just decided to involve yourself in our private affairs of your own free will, then?” he asked, leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest.
“Uh…” I hesitated. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes. I did. She’s really upset. I thought--”
“You thought you’d just swing by and talk me out of years of hopes and dreams for my baby girl’s future.”
“Not really,” I said, shaking my head. What in the hell had I been thinking? This man loved my girl more than life itself, and he still wouldn’t listen to her reasoning. How the hell had I convinced myself that he would listen to me, a guy he didn’t even like?
“So why are you here?” he asked, sitting forward and clasping his hands on the desk in front of him.
“I guess... “ I frowned, staring at my hands before looking up and meeting his eye. “I guess I just wanted to tell you that she’s really upset. She misses you. But she hasn’t once talked about changing her plans. She’s going to go to Caltech, with or without your blessing. So if you think freezing her out is going to change her mind, you’re wrong. She’s already calling around, trying to find work-study programs. She’s applied for financial aid. She asked me to drive her out there, if you won’t when the time comes. Nothing is going to stop her, and I figured if I was her dad I’d wanna know that. You’re either going to send her to California alone, without her family, or you’re going to send her with support and a home to come back to during the summer.”
Every word I spoke had the voice in my head screaming louder and louder. Shut up shut up shut up!!! It yelled, but I had never been great at listening to that voice. I fled in the silence that followed my diatribe. Alex’s father stared at me, his eyes stony, and the thick air of the church was closing around my head, suffocating me. I stood, nodded awkwardly, and left before he had a chance to respond.
That was early March. In late March, Alex and I had our first fight. Two weeks after my talk with her dad, I arrived to pick her up for school and I knew the second she opened the door that I was in trouble. She glared at me across the expanse of her front lawn, and her steps as she marched toward my car were so heavy I swear I felt the earth quake.
“What the hell,” she hissed, climbing into the cab and slamming the door behind her so hard I flinched. We’d never fought before, and suddenly I was terrified. I knew what a fight looked like-- screaming and flying objects and one or both parties leaving, either in a huff of finality or the back of a squad car. Between my dad’s death and the day the state pulled us out, mom went through six boyfriends, and every one of those relationships ended with the first fight.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, my mouth dry, praying on the off chance she might be mad about something completely different. Something unrelated to me and my transgressions. Something fixable.
“You talked to my dad without telling me?” she snapped, jamming her seatbelt into the lock and crossing her arms over her chest.
“A while ago, yeah,” I said, hurriedly pulling out onto the street. Alex was safety conscious. So long as I was driving, she wouldn’t kill me or hit me, and she couldn’t leave. I resolved to drive to the end of the earth if that’s what it took to see this through without losing her.
“You mind telling me what possessed you to stick your nose in my family business?” she said, tossing her bag on the floor by her feet.
“You were upset,” I said lamely.
“Yeah I was fucking upset!” she said, slapping her hands on her thighs to emphasize her point, and it was all I could do not to cringe away from her. What if she got so angry she forgot about safety? My second set of foster parents got in a fight on the road, once. We were on the highway, driving back from an appointment with my caseworker after I got suspended for fighting, and they started arguing about whether to keep me. That turned into a larger fight about bills, which turned into her smacking the shit out of him and him shoving her back with a hand wrapped around her throat. The car swerved all over the road and I remember wishing it would just roll the fuck over and kill us all.
I didn’t really want to die today, though. I wanted her to calm down. I wanted to keep her. “Al, I’m sorry,” I said. Whatever she needed to hear, I’d say it. “I shouldn’t have gone behind your back.”
“You’re damn right you shouldn’t have!” she snapped. “I don’t need you to solve my problems for me, Nate. You’re my boyfriend, not my bodyguard. You can’t just run around beating up my enemies for me. That’s not how life works.”
“I didn’t lay a finger on your dad!” I argued, panicked. What the hell? She thought I’d--
“No, but you did beat up half the male population of our school!”
Oh, shit. This fight just got a lot worse.
“They were talking shit, Al.”
“Yeah, I know. That doesn’t mean you had to go all mob justice on them.”
“You were worried.”
“Yeah, I was worried, Nate. I had every right to be worried. But I need to be able to tell you my problems without worrying that you’re going to try to solve them with your fists. You’re like a fucking guided missile with no off switch! I can’t even vent to you without wondering if I’m putting people in harm’s way!” Her voice was loud, and thick with tears of frustration.
The explosion was coming. The fight had escalated, and now we were reaching the boiling point. I could feel it. My skin prickled as her anger mingled with the diesel fumes in the cab of my shitty old truck. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her arm move toward me, and I jerked away on instinct, packing myself into the corner of my seat, hands tight on the steering wheel. I needed to pull over so I didn’t wreck when she started wailing on me, but we were on a four-lane road with no shoulder. Fuck. Fuck I was gonna get us both killed.
“Nate, what the hell?” Alex exclaimed. When her fist never hit me, I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye and saw her tucked back into her own side of the truck. Her hand was pulled tight against her chest like she’d just touched something hot.
“Sorry,” I choked out. I’d swerved into the left lane in my distracted attempt to get away from her. Fortunately there were no other cars, and I pulled us back into the right lane.
“We’re almost to school,” I said, trying to pull a breath into lungs that refused to work. “Can we just finish this once we get there?”
“Pull the fucking truck over, Nate,” she said again, her voice pitched low in warning. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
I turned off on the next available side street and pulled into an empty furniture store parking lot. As soon as we stopped moving I yanked on the parking brake and let myself out, desperate for fresh air. You almost got her killed, you fucking idiot.
“Nate!” Alex chased after me as I strode across the parking lot toward the furniture store. It was still closed, the windows dark. When I reached it, I leaned against the wall, back to the parking lot, pressing my palms to the cool, pock-marked surface of the cinderblock and staring at the chipped white paint. My lungs still didn’t want to inflate.
“Nate!” Alex said from right behind me, and I jerked around to face her, pressing my back to the wall. She flinched away, and that was just another drop in the bucket of ways I’ve fucked this up. “What the hell is going on with you?” she asked, taking a cautious step forward, shaking her head. “You almost got us killed.”
I couldn’t even find words. Part of me wanted to explain, but I couldn’t risk igniting another fight. Alex and I bickered constantly, but we never fought. I’d thought we never would fight. I’d thought we were safe from that.
“You’re scaring the shit out of me,” Alex said, closing the distance between us. Behind her, the truck was still running, loud and clunky. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe in rhythm with the clunks. Three clunks in. Four clunks out. Three in. Four out. Alex’s scent filled my nose and her hands tentatively settled on my shoulders. Breathing got a little easier.
“Sorry,” I managed, eventually. I tipped my head back against the cinderblock and stared at the sky, trying to anchor myself back in reality. Yellow clouds against a green-blue backdrop. Sharp morning sunlight bouncing blindingly off the metal bumper of my truck. Cars speeding down the road beyond the parking lot, rushing to work and school and errands. Finally grounded, I lowered my gaze to Alex’s face.
She didn’t look pissed anymore. Just scared. “Sorry,” I said, again. Was that the only word left in my vocabulary?
“Stop apologizing and just tell me what happened,” Alex said, stepping back, hands sliding off my shoulders. “Did you think I was gonna hit you?”
I shook my head wordlessly-- not a negation so much as an expression of my absolute inability to explain anything I was thinking.
“You know I’d never do that, right?” Alex asked, and I wanted to say yes. Yes, of course I know. But I didn’t know that. I’d never seen her angry like that before. I’d let myself believe she was just too level-headed to get angry. I was the violent one. I was the angry one. Never Alex.
“Would you ever hit me?” she asked, and I balked at the question. My words suddenly came back in a rush.
“Of course not!” I snapped.
“Why?” she asked, smiling.
“Because you’re a girl.” Obviously.
I shrugged, casting around for a truthful answer. “Because I love you?”
“Yeah, and I love you too, remember?”
“It’s not the same,” I argued, frowning at her. “You were angry.”
“Yeah I was angry!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands out to her sides and letting them fall. “But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna freaking hit you. And even if I was I wouldn’t do it in a moving car that you were driving. That’s crazy!”
“You were really angry,” I said stupidly. Why didn’t she understand? There’s no logic when you’re angry. There’s no love. There’s just a red haze and bloodlust.
“Not everyone solves every problem with violence,” Al said, scowling at me. “Are you gonna get like this every time we fight?”
Jesus H. Christ. This is gonna happen again?
I shrugged, and Al rolled her eyes, heaving an exasperated sigh.
“You’re impossible,” she said with a shake of her head. “Don’t go behind my back again to solve my problems, Nate.” I shook my head in agreeance. “And next time we fight, don’t try to wreck your car.” I hung my head, unable to look at her. Alex was the most well-adjusted girl I’d ever met. How long would it take for her to run out of patience with my bullshit? I ought to have broken up with her right then and there-- liberated her of my convoy full of baggage.
I couldn’t do it, though. I loved her too much. Or maybe I didn’t love her enough. Either way, instead of setting her free I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her until she squeaked, batting at my chest with her hands.
“Let me go, crazy,” she mumbled against my chest, and I loosened my grip, letting her step away. She glared at me, but her hackles were down and the air no longer buzzed and crackled with the energy of her anger.
“I’m still pissed at you,” she said, bracing her hands on her hips. I just nodded. And that was the end of our first fight. No screaming. No thrown objects. No police involvement. No bruises. Just raised voices and fear.
I could survive that.
* * *
In April, for the first time since we started seeing each other, I took Alex on an actual, honest-to-God date.
It thought maybe I was dreaming when the stars finally started falling in line. First, Paul left the system. In late March, his maternal grandparents finally got wind of his existence. They were estranged from his mother before she died and had no idea they had a grandson. One day Paul was there. The next he was gone, swept away by the same combination of luck and love that had snagged up Jakey so many years ago.
Trish cried and Ronnie pouted and bitched about his own grandparents, who had had the gall to die before he was born. I was just happy. I’d fucked it up with Jake, so now any time a kid got adopted out from under me, I made sure to send them off with a smile and a hug. When the loss and petty jealousy inevitably crept up I beat it back with memories of Jake’s tear-stained face and I forced myself to be happy. Just happy.
A week after Paul left, Ronnie brought home a permission slip for a sleep-away field trip to the big city to visit some natural history museum. He didn’t want to go, but I talked him into it. Two nights away from Tim and Marsha was a rare opportunity. I forged the signature and he took the permission slip back to school the next day.
I damn near cried when Trish came to me two days later, begging to attend a sleepover at her friend’s house that Friday night. I didn’t even bother to clear it with Tim and Marsha. As long as they knew where we were if the authorities came knocking, they didn’t give a shit where we went. I would drop her off and pick her up, so it wouldn’t interfere with their drug consumption. Nothing else mattered.
The only person left to worry about was Deb and, if I’m being honest, I didn’t worry too much about her those days. She was never at home and, when I did see her, she was invariable stoned out of her mind. I still cared about her. I still wished she would clean up her act. I just didn’t have it in me anymore to drag her kicking and screaming back to the light, only to have her dive back into the darkness the second I turned my back.
Paul was gone. Ronny had a field trip. Trish had a sleep over. Deb was never home. For the first time since I entered the system, I didn’t have a single person to worry about. Friday night was wide open. I could do whatever the fuck I wanted.
“Do you wanna see a movie on Friday?” I asked Alex, hiding a smile when she gawked at me across our little table in the library.
“Like... sneak out and catch a midnight showing?” she asked, confused. We never did anything but meet up at the spot for our midnight rendezvous.
“I was thinking more like dinner at 5 and a movie at 7,” I said, shrugging like it was no big deal.
“My stars, Nate Reynolds,” Al breathed, widening her eyes and pressing her hand to her chest. “Are you asking me on a date?”
“Of course not!” I played along, holding up my hands and shaking my head. I leaned forward, whispering so the library staff wouldn’t hear me. “I was just thinking we could get dinner on me and then sit in the back of a dark theater and make out. Then, if you’re up for it, maybe we could wander into the woods and have a little sex.”
Alex leaned forward and whispered in my ear, warm breath brushing over my skin. “That sounds an awful lot like a date.”
“Call it what you want,” I said with a shrug. “The offer expires in five… four… three… two…”
“Okay, okay!” Alex exclaimed, pressing a kiss to my lips before pulling back to her side of the table. “What should I wear?”
“I mean the date ends in the woods, so…”
“Ballgown. Got it,” she said, smiling as she pulled her book open. I watched her read for a while, and the smile never left her face. It didn’t leave mine, either.
* * *
I dropped Trish off at her sleepover at 4, which left just enough time to run home, shower, and pull on my newest jeans and least ratty t-shirt. I arrived at Alex’s house at 4:45 sharp. I half expected her to be wearing a ballgown just to be funny, but the sight that greeted me when she opened her front door was so much more tantalizing than that.
She wore jean shorts that were probably a little too short for her father’s liking, and the same sneakers she always wore to traipse around in the woods. Her shirt was a casual halter top that left her shoulders bare, displaying a smattering of freckles. The only part of her that seemed done up was her hair, which she’d brushed into compliant, shiny curls that hung to her shoulders. I stared at her, wondering if she’d be cool with skipping past dinner and a movie and going straight to the sex portion of the evening.
I didn’t really want that, though. I wanted to sit in a restaurant with her and buy her food. I wanted to make out with her in a crowded theater. Call me an exhibitionist, but I just really really wanted every person in the world to know she was mine.
We ate dinner at Applebee’s. Embarrassing, I know, but I didn’t have many options. Our town wasn’t exactly at the forefront of American fine dining. The only other decent place was an Italian restaurant that cost $25 a plate and I think Alex would’ve killed me if we went there. She knew I was trying to save.
So we ate at Applebee’s, surrounded by families and loud frat boys getting drunk at the bar, yelling at the baseball game on the screens above them. We didn’t talk much while we ate. At that point, Alex and I didn’t really have to. We’d long ago reached the point where we primarily communicated via significant looks and off-handed comments. We were two teenagers who had settled comfortably into the rhythm of a middle-aged married couple with kids.
We still had the libido of teenagers, though, and I don’t even remember what movie we saw. We sat in the back row, and the second the lights dimmed, Alex’s hand was in my lap. By the time the movie started she herself was in my lap and my own hand was up her shirt, wrapped around a bare breast. Twenty minutes into the film, some beleaguered theater worker came by, shined a flashlight on us, and asked us to leave.
We walked back to the truck, laughing hysterically. Alex clung to me, her arms around my waist as we walked, and I kept an arm around her shoulders. Older people stared at us and rolled their eyes, and I knew deep down that we were being obnoxious, but not even a small part of me actually cared.
Instead of taking her home, I drove out to the same secluded spot by the lake where we’d celebrated my birthday. There, I killed the engine and returned the favor she’d done me back in February.
There’s some moments that stick with you no matter how distant they become. Most of mine are bad, but that night is one of the rare, good persistent memories. I’ll go to my deathbed remembering the taste of her arousal on my tongue, and the feel of her hands gripping my hair. I’ll remember the smell of diesel and sweat, and I’ll remember the sound of her crying out when she came. I still have the truck, too. The memory and the truck. It breaks down every few weeks and guzzles gas, but I’ll never get rid of it. I can’t stand the thought of some stranger driving off, sitting on the bench seat where my girl sprawled, legs spread wide, face raised to the torn up plastic roof as she screamed my name.
For a few minutes after, Alex didn’t move. She just slumped against the door, panting, one arm draped over the back of the seat, the other hanging down toward the floorboards. Her hair was matted, her skin shining with sweat, chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath.
Immensely satisfied with myself, I gathered her up in my arms and pulled her into my lap, kissing a trail up her neck toward her mouth. She wrapped her arms around my neck, snuggled close, and fell asleep.
I admit, my dick was pissed the fuck off. It ached and whined, straining against my pants. I did my best to ignore it, though, because this was kind of a dream in itself. I lowered my face to her hair, breathing in the flowery fresh scent, and let my own eyes drift shut. A cool breeze trickled through the half-open windows, drying the sweat on our skin and carrying with it the smell of damp earth and springtime. Alex sighed, nuzzling closer, the warmth of her body penetrating my skin and making me unbelievably drowsy.
I’d dozed on the rock before, with Alex curled against my side. I’d laid with her in bed in the days after her mother died. I’d never really slept with her, though. Waking up a few hours later, I realized that I’d never really slept at all. Not until that night. I sank into an inky black soup that smelled like Alex, and echoes of the future drifted around me, bright and hopeful. When I woke, it took me thirty seconds to get my bearings.
Thirty seconds of groggy vulnerability as I blinked away dreams. That kind of weakness was like a death sentence in my world.
I blinked open gritty eyes, trying to remember where I was. Alex had slipped down so that her head was in my lap, her face turned into my stomach, one arm shoved between my back and the seat behind me. Confused, rubbing at my eyes, I brushed hair off her face.
“Alex,” I whispered, smoothing a thumb over the scar on her temple. “Wake up, angel.”
It took three more tries before her eyes blinked open, glistening up at me in the dim light.
“I think we fell asleep,” I whispered.
She blinked. Then her eyes widened, and she jerked up, looking around. “What time is it?” she asked. I glanced at my watch.
“11:30.” Her curfew was midnight. “We’ve still got time to get you home.”
Alex breathed out a sigh of relief, righting herself further so that she sat on her side of the seat once more. Her shorts were on the floorboards, and I bent to retrieve them, dropping them in her lap.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, awkwardly slipping back into them. “Sorry I fell asleep.”
“It’s okay,” I told her, starting the engine. The headlights made me wince, and all I wanted was to go back to sleep. “I did too.”
We didn’t talk on the drive back to town, but Alex held my hand, humming along with the crackling music pouring out of my crappy speakers. We rolled the windows down all the way, and the wind played with her hair, whipping it about her face. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I got her home with two minutes to spare, and she kissed me goodbye and slipped out of the truck. I shamelessly watched her ass as she jogged across the lawn, blowing one last kiss before darting into her house.
I was utterly at peace for the whole drive back to Tim and Marsha’s place. Still heavy and listless with sleep, I parked on the curb and hopped the low, chain link fence. The house was dark and I said a silent prayer of gratitude as I slid my window open and climbed inside.
It was strange, being in an empty room. I kicked my shoes off and sprawled on my bed. Without Ronnie snoring in one bed, Paul sleeping talking in another, and Trish tossing and turning in the third, the silence was almost deafening. Little noises rose up in the emptiness and jammed themselves into my ears.
Noises like the house settling. Noises like the midnight train, four blocks away. Noises like the soft sound of stifled sobbing, coming from the room on the other side of my wall. The girls’ room. Trish’s room.