Chapter 20 - Alex
I wish I could spell it all out for you. That it was simple and straightforward. I was sad at first, so I cried. After two weeks and three days, I became angry. I left town. I forgot he ever existed.
But it’s never that simple, is it? Emotions don’t arrange themselves neatly for us to hurdle over on our race to the finish line. They’re a murky, muddy mess. They’re a waist-deep pit of sludge and prickly vines. When one lets go another grabs hold, and sometimes you’re a victim to everything at once and it’s all you can do to keep from sinking below the surface and letting them drown you just so you can get some freaking peace and quiet.
The first few days weren’t the hardest, either. They should have been. Time heals all wounds, right? I’d lived that adage with my mother. Not that I was “over” her death, so to speak, but the wrenching agony had faded and become more livable.
It didn’t work like that with Nate. Perhaps because he wasn’t dead. Maybe if he was, I’d have been able to get over it. The first few days would have been the hardest, and then I’d have moved on and found a way to live without him. But how do you learn to live without something you may never have had in the first place?
The first few days were straightforward sadness. Defeat. Betrayal. All I knew was that he’d begged for another chance, made me a promise, and then abandoned me at the spot. I stumbled home in tears, curled up in a corner of my bedroom, and wept until the sun rose. All weekend, I wandered about in a haze, alone in an empty house. Daddy was away at some conference and he’d arranged for Tom to stay with some folks from the church so I wouldn’t have to look out for him.
On Monday, it got worse. So much worse.
Gemma picked me up, as she had for the past two weeks. Her face was unusually pale as I climbed into the front seat of her two-door coupe.
“Aly, I’m so sorry,” she said mournfully. Her concern matched my broken heart, but it didn’t make any sense. I hadn’t told her that Nate was supposed to meet me, or that he’d squandered his last chance to make us right. How did she know to pity me more, today, than any other? “My mom told me what happened. Are you okay?”
Her mom told her? “Uh…” I frowned, so perplexed I momentarily forgot my sadness. “How the hell does your mom know?”
Gemma rolled her eyes as she backed the car out of my drive. “Her latest boy toy is some cop,” she said. “And you know mom’s nosey as hell, so she’s always prodding him for info on his cases. He responded to the call on Friday night.”
“The call?” Fear slithered up my spine, even before Gemma’s eyes widened, mouth parting in a silent ‘o’.
“You don’t know,” she breathed.
“Don’t know what?” I asked, my heart thundering in my ears.
Gemma flipped her hazards on and pulled over to the side of the road-- the vehicular equivalent of telling someone they should probably “sit down” to hear whatever was coming next. My stomach dropped like so much lead into the pit of my stomach and my heart hammered so hard I could feel it pounding against my rib cage.
“Gemma, what happened?” I asked again as my friend put the car in park and angled herself so she was facing me. Her right hand clutched the gear shift, nails digging into the false leather.
“Aly, your boy was arrested,” she said, looking down at her lap and shaking her head. “He…” she trailed off before looking up at me. “Didn’t you think it was weird you didn’t hear from him all weekend?
“I never hear from him on the weekend,” I shrugged impatiently. “He doesn’t have a phone. Gemma, please just tell me. What did he do?”
He got caught shoplifting. Loitering. Fighting. Driving too fast. Is speeding an arrestable offense?
“He killed his foster dad,” Gemma said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Beat him to death with his bare hands.”
I stared at her, uncomprehending. My mind frantically tried to make sense of her words. It threw memories at me in rapid fire. Holding his hand the first night we met. Laying on the rock with him, staring at the stars. His arm around my shoulder, offering comfort. His gruff, reassuring presence while I showered in those first days after my mother’s death. The lost look in his eyes when I confronted him about Deb. His voice, firm but gentle, talking me down off of cliff after cliff throughout six years of loyal, intimate friendship.
“No he didnt,” I breathed, unable to reconcile Gemma’s words with my truth. He wouldn’t. My Nate wasn’t a murderer. But just as soon as the words left my mouth, I remembered the feral gleam in his eye during Friday’s fight. I thought of the endless bruises, cropping up and fading on his skin-- the tough, silvery scar tissue on his knuckles. Perhaps my version of Nate wasn’t a murderer, but it was past time I finally accepted that my version wasn’t the only version. Somewhere out there was a version for whom fighting was a way of life-- who slept with pseudo-siblings and apparently beat people to death.
Perhaps if it hadn’t happened so abruptly I’d have been able to see past the shock and ask myself why there were multiple editions of the boy I loved-- what external circumstances had broken him into so many unknowable pieces. Maybe if he hadn’t kept himself so closed off from me I’d have realized there weren’t multiple versions at all. Just one. One boy and more secrets than anyone should have to keep.
“Aly?” Gemma asked, resting a gentle hand on my arm. “Are you okay?”
“No,” I said, because it was abrupt and he had kept himself closed off from me. All I could feel in that moment was shame. Shame that I hadn’t seen who he really was. Humiliation that everyone would know that Aly Winger shacked up with a murderer and was therefore either stupid or irreconcilably broken. Disgust that I’d given so much of myself to someone so twisted.
“Do you wanna cut class?” she asked kindly. “We could go get coffee. Or go back to my place. My mom’s at work. We could get day drunk.”
That sounded wonderful. I’d never had more than a glass of wine, but I relished the thought of drowning my sorrows in humanity’s favorite numbing agent.
“No,” I said again, trying to make my voice stronger. “Let’s go to school.” The best path forward was to hold my head high and make myself impervious to the whispers and rumors. Cowering from reality and getting sloppy drunk wouldn’t help at all in that endeavor. I would walk into school and act like nothing phased me and maybe-- if I kept up appearances for long enough-- I would start to feel as strong as I acted.
The next few weeks were an exercise in discipline. Nobody confronted me directly, perhaps because of the persisting rumor that I, too, was a remorseless sociopath. I still heard them talk, though. Whispers and snippets came together into a conflicted, dramatized legend with, I suspected, very little basis in reality.
“I heard he flipped out on the guy for looking at him funny.”
“I heard he’s in foster care because his dad’s a murderer too. You know there’s a theory that psychopathy is genetic?”
“I heard he beat up one of the kids, too.”
“My mom says she’s friends with the foster mother. Apparently he tried to force himself on her and that’s how the fight started.”
“Well I overheard some of the sister’s friends in the bathroom. I think the dad was a pervert and Nate was just trying to stop him.”
“My dad says he’s gonna get the death penalty.”
“I heard the kids got carted off to a different city for their own safety.”
“He tore the guy’s head clean off. Blood everywhere.”
After that, somehow, it got worse.
“You hear his sister is pregnant? The slutty one I mean.”
“Apparently they were fighting over her.”
“The baby is his. He tried to get her to abort it but she wouldn’t so he tried to beat it out of her. The dad intervened.”
So it didn’t get better. It was bad, then worse, then unbearable. I desperately wanted to know the truth and, just as desperately, to forget Nate had ever existed.
Then came the letters.
The first was in a business envelope. My address was scrawled across the front in Nate’s sloppy chicken scratch, and the return address was some law firm downtown. I went inside and opened the envelope and pulled out two pages of lined legal pad paper. Happy tears trickled over my cheeks while I read his story. His truth. My father took me to visit him in jail. We pressed our hands to the plexiglass between us and said “I love you.” His case was dismissed. It was all a misunderstanding. He followed me to California and we got married and spent the rest of our lives together. Happily ever after.
Of course not. Life isn’t a fairytale, Nate’s not a prince, and I’m not a sweet and gentle damsel.
I sat for hours that night, cross legged on my bed with the envelope on the comforter before me. I stared daggers at that paper-- light as a feather but heavy with possibilities. I picked it up and held it to the light above as if I could somehow see his intent through the envelope. I raced through possibilities, his voice reading my theories in my mind, like he was sitting right next to me.
“I’m not a murderer, Alex. He killed himself and framed me.”
“It was self defense, Alex. He hit me first.”
“I had to kill him, Alex. He was going after Deb.”
“I never loved you, Alex. You were nothing but a game.”
In the end, I never opened the letter, but not for the reasons you think. I wasn’t afraid he would say the wrong thing and break me further. I was afraid he would say the right thing and pull me back in. Whatever the reason, he had killed a man. He had beaten a living being unconscious and then kept beating him until he no longer drew breath. Whatever the reason, he had suddenly, out of nowhere, abandoned me for Deb. Deb who, according to a particularly consistent rumor, was pregnant with Nate’s baby.
You’ve heard the theory of Occam’s Razor? If there are two explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better?
The bottom line was that Nate was violent, he was dishonest, and he was about to go to prison for a very long time. My Nate was gone. Dead and buried, if he ever existed at all. The letter was just a whisper from the other side.
So why did I keep it?
* * *
I graduated high school on June 8, 2002. I was the valedictorian, and I wrote a charming, loquacious speech about hard work and friendship and bright, happy futures. I printed it out in triplicate for my guidance counselor, the english department head, and the school VP to proof for grammatical errors and inappropriate content. They said it was lovely and the counselor told me how brave I was for overcoming everything I’d been through.
When the day came, I stood in front of 112 students and their corresponding families and delivered a speech that was thirty seconds long. I tapped my three pages of drivel on the podium, leaned toward the microphone, and squinted against the spotlights into the dark, packed auditorium.
“Gemma Roberts,” I said, trying not to cringe as my voice echoed out through the loudspeakers. “You’re an amazing friend. I’m going to miss you next year. Daddy,” I said calmly, as the faculty seated behind me on the stage started to shift. They knew I was going off script. “Things haven’t always been easy, but I know you love me. Thank you for forgiving me when I didn’t follow your rules. Tom-tom,” somewhere in the audience I heard my brother whoop and I smiled in spite of myself. “You’re my favorite person on earth. I love you more than life. Mrs. Parker,” I turned around and smiled at the English department head. “You’re the kind of teacher who changes kids’ lives for the better.
“And all the rest of you,” I finished, gripping the edges of the podium so hard my fingers were turning white. “Can go fuck yourselves.”
The crowd went wild. Some people laughed. Some people cheered. It was the most support I’d ever received from my classmates, and I barely heard it. I walked backstage, and nobody followed me. I think the faculty were all too shocked. Sweet, quiet little Aly Winger would never do something so outrageous.
My cap and gown were a crumpled-up wad in my arms and I was leaning against the car when Daddy and Tom made their way out five minutes later.
“Did that make you feel better?” Daddy asked evenly, unlocking the car as he approached.
“Yes,” I answered honestly, returning Tom’s too-tight hug.
“You left without your diploma,” my father said as we climbed in and buckled our seatbelts.
“It was just a rolled up piece of blank paper,” I said. “We get our real diplomas in the mail in two weeks.”
My father hummed thoughtfully and we drove the rest of the way home in silence.
* * *
I spent the summer at my grandparents’ lakehouse in northern Michigan. Tom and I whiled away the longest days of the year swimming and fishing, walking in the woods, and lazing around watching TV. Every week on Sunday my father would call and ask us how we were and share trite small-talk from home. Every call ended on the same note.
“You got another one,” he’d tell me.
“Throw it away,” I’d respond.
“Sugar, you know I hate that he hurt you but maybe you should just read them. Forgiveness is important in the healing pro--”
“Throw it away.”
But when I came home in early August there was a stack of letters on my desk. The more recent ones weren’t from the jail. They were return addressed to the federal prison three counties away. There were ten of them. Eleven including the first, which was sitting in a shoebox with other treasured items beneath my bed.
The evening I got home, I went to the grocery store to pick up the essentials, because apparently my father had been keeping true to the bachelor stereotype in Tom’s and my absence. All he had around was half-empty pizza boxes and frozen dinners.
I was rounding the corner from the canned-veggies-and-soup aisle into the baking-goods-and-spices aisle when I nearly ran her over with my cart.
She was wearing plastic, dollar store sandals, sweatpants, and a worn yellow tank top that molded itself to her rounded belly. Her hair hung limp and frizzy by her face, and her eyes were shadowed.
I wanted to hit her, and I wanted to hug her.
“You’re, um…” I trailed off, my eyes sinking to her belly. “Congratulations?”
“Don’t be a bitch,” she snapped, but there was little venom in her voice. And why should there be? She won. Nevermind that I hadn’t even been aware of the competition until the end.
“I wasn’t,” I said honestly. “I just didn’t know--”
“Right.” I tried to steer my cart around her but she side-stepped, blocking my way.
“It’s his,” she said, glaring at me over my basket of produce and ground hamburger. I felt like she’d reached across the cart and slammed a knife into my chest.
“What?” I asked, my tongue suddenly too big for my mouth.
“It’s his. Nate’s.” She pointed at her belly. “When he gets out, he’s going to help me raise it. He’s not coming back to you.”
“Okay,” I said quietly, although my heart was dropping to its knees and raising hands to the heavens, wailing out a drawn out, Hollywood Noooooooooooo!!!!! at a cruel, remorseless god.
It was the culmination of three months of worrying, agonizing, and second-guessing my decision to cut myself off from him. Three months of trying not to imagine the possibility that I was wrong. All that time I’d quietly hoped that I really was the villain, and my Nate wasn’t imaginary or dead but holed up in a cell wondering why I’d abandoned him when he needed me most. I’d tried and failed to stop myself from imagining a future where he got out of prison, found me, and read me the riot act for being such an idiot as to question our love.
She fell at his feet and wept her apologies. He pulled her into his arms and kissed away her tears, forgiving her. They rode into the sunset together and lived happily ever after.
When was I going to learn?
“My dad’s church has a program for single parents,” I said woodenly. I don’t know why I said it. Partly, I think, because of the baby. Deb had never struck me as a mothering sort, and the child didn’t deserve to be punished for her shortcomings. Partly, though, it was about Deb. She’d just driven a knife into my heart, but as I slammed into rock bottom, I guess I recognized that I wasn’t alone there. She was as broken as I was-- perhaps more so. Nate had probably used her the same way he’d used me.
“Excuse me?” she spat, glaring. “I don’t need charity.”
“Yes you do,” I sighed. “It’s a good program. They’ve got donated clothes and carseats and toys. Stuff like that. There’s a support group of other moms if you have any questions about any of it. It’s not like I’ll be around, so you don’t have to worry about seeing me. Just think on it.”
I rifled through my purse and came up with one of my father’s business cards, handing it to her. She took it, hesitantly.
“Thanks,” she said, her brow furrowed as she stared at the card.
“You’re welcome.” I steered the cart around her and left her standing at the end of the aisle with her baby belly and basket of TV dinners.
“Hey, Alex?” she called, forcing me to stop and turn around.
“I’m sorry,” she said hoarsely.
I didn’t respond. I guess it’s not very christ-like, but I wasn’t quite ready to forgive her.
I finished my shopping, paid for my purchases, and shuttled them out to the parking lot. The August air was thick, and the streetlights buzzed overhead, attracting bugs that slammed themselves repeatedly above the bulb with loud thwack sounds as I loaded my groceries into the back of my father’s sedan.
I tried not to breathe through my nose as I pushed my cart back to the store. The grocery was bordered on two sides by thick, undeveloped woods and the air smelled like damp earth and sunbaked vegetation. It smelled like long nights spent staring at the stars with my best friend by my side.
It wasn’t until I was safely behind the wheel and driving home that the tears broke loose. I cried in anger at the betrayal, in grief at the loss, and in agony at the loneliness. I damn near crashed the car I cried so hard.
I sat in the driveway outside my house for long minutes as the tears came and came and came, and the vast and empty world somehow closed in on me, compressing me down until I could barely breathe.
When the tears finally stopped, I sat up and wiped my eyes and pulled the rearview mirror down so I could see my face in the semi-darkness. I looked myself in the eye and made myself a promise.
“That’s the last time,” I said firmly, glaring at myself in the mirror. “You don’t need him. You never did. He’s a jackass, a cheater, and a killer. He doesn’t deserve your tears, and you will never cry for him again.”
Eighteen year old Alex made that promise.
Twenty four year old Alex broke it.