Chapter 2 - Alex
I was happy, dammit. Perfectly at peace. I had a job and a wonderful boyfriend and a bright, predictable future. I hadn’t suffered even a passing thought about Nathan Reynolds in months. I hadn’t dreamed about his hands on my body or yearned for the sound of his voice in years. I was happy.
Nominal word: was.
The man standing before me-- who had just come scant inches from running me over with his cart-- bore little resemblance to the boy I’d fallen in love with. Nonetheless, I recognized him instantly. My stubborn heart cut straight through all the changes and latched on to the heartbreaking familiarity of his face. My soul tumbled headfirst into his, helpless against the gravity of his gaze. I wanted-- needed-- to be closer.
I took a step forward.
He took a step back.
That’s when my brain finally caught up to the rest of me and, panting for air, demanded that I acknowledge the fact that this man wasn’t mine. Maybe once he had been, but he wasn’t now.
This wasn’t my wiry, scruffy-haired boy with the gruff voice and the sweet eyes. This was that other half of him I’d heard so much about but never met. The part that used to lurk beneath the surface, but now cleary owned it, part and parcel. This was a man-- dangerous and mean. His dark hair was cropped short, his face harsh and angular. His eyes were flinty and hard and his mouth was pressed into a firm line that betrayed neither glimmer of smile nor shadow of frown. He was taller than my boy, and broader. Stronger.
He made my body want to run, but the problem was it didn’t know which direction to go.
Towards him or away?
I needed to look away, but my eyes scanned every inch of him, desperately and independently sucking up every detail that might tell me who he had become. There were marks on him that I’d never seen before. A small, raised scar sliced through the edge of his left eyebrow and another graced the corner of his upper lip. His nose was a little crooked, and stark black tattoos crept up his right forearm in concentric, intricately detailed bands.
For just a moment I forgot the past-- and the fragile happiness of my present-- and all I wanted was to have him alone. I needed to study those tattoos up close and listen to whatever story he’d sought to immortalize within their lines. I needed to strip him down to nothing and find every perfect imperfection violence and cruelty had carved into the boy I once loved with all my heart. I needed to rip my own chest open and unload six years of stress and grief into his lap and listen to the soothing timbre of his voice as he sorted through my problems and put me back together, syncing my heart and mind in a way nobody else could.
“Alex,” he stated, with no emotion in his voice. It was neither query nor exclamation. It wasn’t even a greeting. It was just a statement-- an acknowledgment of the fact that it was, indeed, me standing before him.
“Nate,” I said, but my voice wasn’t nearly so brusque or steady. It warbled and cracked, and I cleared my throat, shifting from foot to foot, wishing I could find the strength to break his gaze. “Nate. It’s good to see you.”
His lips turned down a little at that, and he cocked his head and studied me with the same efficient intensity he always used to. It felt like he was in my mind, and my spine prickled.
My eyes snapped to the little boy standing on the end of Nate’s cart. I’d seen him a few times from afar, and the sight of him never failed to send a pang through my chest. He was a cute kid-- all wide eyes with a smattering of freckles on his nose. He didn’t look much like his father, but seeing them standing there together brought all that heartache rushing back like I was seventeen again. No healing had taken place. Every scar was ripped open.
“Matt, this is Alex,” Nate said, and when I looked back at him his eyes were still locked on me. “Al, Matt.”
The little boy offered me a shy smile when I waved, my own smile watery and weak.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, and my voice was barely more than a whisper.
“We gotta get going,” Nate said, stepping back to the cart and giving it a pointed nudge in my direction. I stepped out of the way.
“It was good to see you,” I said, but he didn’t answer. I stood beneath bright fluorescent lights with crackers on one side and a tower of soda boxes on the other, and watched him walk away. Tears threatened, but I blinked them back.
I was utterly shocked, but the worst part was, I felt good. My chest ached with a wrenching, near-physical pain, but I hadn’t felt so alive since the last time I saw him. The encounter woke me up from a dream I didn’t even know I was having. Nate Reynolds was back in town, and my heart-- so long dormant and cold-- suddenly came pulsing back to life.
* * *
“Who wants Oreos?” I yelled as I kicked the front door closed behind me, fixing a plastic smile onto my face as I heard Tom’s bedroom door slam shut and the pound of his feet, thundering down carpeted stairs.
I had stayed away from home for five years. Four were spent at college, returning only for holidays and brief stays during the summer. After I graduated with a degree in physics, I applied and was accepted for a year-long lab assistant position at Northeastern University. My dream-- my goal-- was to enter a graduate program in theoretical physics at MIT. I wanted to solve the mysteries of the universe and my professors at CalTech all told me that geographical proximity to the institution of my choice was more important than I might think.
So, for nearly a year, I worked tirelessly at Northeastern, building my reputation, and spent my off time networking with single-minded focus. My only “fun” came in the form of a long string of casual hookups.
I know, I know. My father would be so ashamed. It felt good, though. Liberating. I’d spent my first semester of college moping in my dorm, buried in books. Then my roommate lost patience, shoved me into one of her too-tight black dresses and high black heels, and dragged me to a frat party. There, I learned that every sexual encounter doesn’t have to be earth-shattering and heavy with meaning. If you want, it can be fun. Exercise with a partner. Cardio with a kick at the end. A shot of watered-down ambrosia to take the edge off of life.
And so, nameless pretty face by unfamiliar toned body, I buried Nate’s memory. I replaced the feel of him with a parade of hands and tongues and dicks. I taught myself to moan and shudder and scream so that, eventually, his name no longer found its way to my lips when I came. I washed away the pain of his betrayal and the loneliness of my nights with the cool, sweet waters of uncomplicated sexual contact.
Wow, what a slut, I hear you thinking, and to that I say “fuck you.” I was a grown woman. I was smart and careful. I got an IUD and always, always used a condom. I never got so drunk as to lose my faculties. I never lied to a guy and made him believe I was after something more. I was just having fun. Harmless, healthy fun.
Then, three weeks after starting my job at Northeastern, I met Parker. I was trolling a bar in Back Bay, looking for a willing partner to help me blow off some steam. Instead, Mr. Parker O’Donohue mosied up to the bar beside me and offered to buy me a drink.
He was cute. His blonde hair was slightly tousled, his face boyish and smiling. He wore a Harvard t-shirt, khakis, and brown loafers. His blue eyes grinned at me from behind dark-rimmed glasses and my belly tickled with warm approval.
He would do.
I accepted his drink and waited for him to drop some smart-guy pick up line on me. Instead, he rested his elbow on the bar and dropped his chin into his hand, studying me.
“I’m hungry,” he said, thoughtfully.
“That’s awfully forward,” I said, taken aback. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would skip past all the pleasantries and charm.
His brow furrowed in confusion for a second before his eyebrows shot up toward his hairline and he opened his mouth, barking out a surprised laugh.
“You have a nasty mind,” he said, grinning widely. “I actually just meant that I’m hungry. Like for food.”
“Okay...” I looked over at the bartender, who was just heading back to us with our drinks.
“Sooo I was just thinking maybe we have these drinks and then go get something eat. You seem like one of those girls who looks like she eats carrots and raw almonds but could actually eat a 200 pound linebacker under the table. Is that accurate?”
I grinned in spite of myself. I wasn’t sure about the first part, but the second part was spot on.
So, instead of having a drink, exchanging smalltalk, and heading back to my apartment for no-strings sex, I spent the entire night talking. We finished our drinks, left the bar, and wandered the streets trying to agree on cuisine. We ate greasy pay-by-the-slice pizza while sitting on a park bench, discussing our hopes and dreams. We went to a 24-hour coffee shop and drank tea and talked about our favorite movies. He walked me to my apartment, kissed me on the cheek, and asked for my number.
I gave it to him. He left. The rest is history.
Parker was-- is-- everything Nate was not.
Parker was open and straightforward where Nate was evasive and dishonest.
Parker was steady and dependable where Nate was distracted and inconsistent.
Parker and I ate in restaurants and held hands in broad daylight. Nate and I had hidden in the dark.
Parker talked-- he told me everything, from his childhood nickname to his greatest fears. Nate was a closed book, bound in secrecy.
Parker was smiling, hopeful, and innocent. Nate was raw fury beneath an eggshell-thin veneer of control.
Parker was obtaining his MLB from a prestigious institution. Nate was serving time in a federal penitentiary.
The two couldn’t be any different, and for that reason I was happy with Parker. I couldn’t look at him and think too hard about Nate. It was like looking for a waning crescent moon at high noon. You could see it if you looked hard enough, but it faded to a shadow in the pale blue sky. Nevermind that I was always meant to walk in moonlight. Parker gave me a chance to walk down that sunny path I had turned from all those years ago and I took it.
Parker and I not only talked about the future, we actively made strides towards it. We swapped keys and had drawers and toothbrushes at each others’ apartments. We compared 5 year plans and synced them, intending to stay in Boston together.
Then, that December, my life veered suddenly and violently back towards home. I was visiting for the Christmas holiday, and on the evening of the 22nd I was out shopping with Tom and my father, picking up toys for the church’s holiday drive. As he was reaching to pull a stuffed bear off a shelf, my father groaned and hunched over, sweat beading on his brow, fist clenched over his chest. Then he collapsed and the rest became a blur of flashing memories.
Speeding behind the ambulance with Tom crying in the seat beside me. Sitting on an uncomfortable chair until the wee hours of the morning. The drain of relief when the doctor came to get us with a smile on his face.
“As far as heart attacks go, this one was fairly minor” the doctor explained while Tom and I stood by our father’s bed, looking down at his pale, unconscious face. “We’ll keep him here for a few days for observation and then send him home with medication. He’ll have to change his lifestyle a little, but he is otherwise a healthy man.
It was stress that had done him in. Stress at work, the stress of taking care of Tom, and I imagine the lingering stress of his guilt over my mother’s death. On Christmas Day, in the spirit of the holiday, I conferred with my conscious and decided it was time to come home and help take care of what remained of my family. There were teaching assistant positions at the university in town. Moving would upset and slow down my timeline, but it wouldn’t halt it altogether.
In March, I terminated my contract with Northeastern and moved back home. Parker begged off work for a week to help. We put most of my crap in storage back in Boston, loaded up the back of Parker’s SUV with suitcases and boxes of clothes and books, and drove home.
Daddy loved Parker. He pulled me aside the evening we arrived and told me how proud he was that I’d finally brought home a man who was good for me. The animal inside me snarled at the jab, but I forced it to quiet down. It was impulsive to defend Nate, but it wasn’t logical. He wasn’t a good man. Parker was. Why right or reason did I have to argue otherwise?
After three days, I’d driven Parker to the airport and put him on a plane back to Boston, and for the next five months my life fell into a strange, nostalgic rhythm.
I slept in my old bedroom and drove old, familiar streets. I spent afternoons hanging out with my brother and cooking dinner. I hounded my poor father relentlessly about his medication. I called Gemma, who was working as a nurse at the university hospital, and started meeting up with her like old times. Sometime during college, Gemma had realized that she was gay and was dating a snarky, straight-faced young woman named Lacey who had a dry sense of humor that contrasted so sharply with Gemma’s bubbly nature that the two of them together made me laugh.
Once every two weeks, Parker would fly down and visit. I’d take him around to all my old stomping grounds. Most of my old stomping grounds. I still hadn’t taken him to the spot and I didn’t know if I wanted to. We went to the high school, though, and to my old ice cream place. We drank coffee at Gemma’s and my favorite shop. We visited bars I’d only ever seen from the outside.
Every once in a while we’d run into old classmates of mine who would stare at me with wide eyes and approach me cautiously, their eyes flicking from me to my boyfriend like they couldn’t believe crazy Ally Winger had ended up with a decent, normal guy.
Most of them exchanged anxious, empty pleasantries with me and shook Parker’s hand with false smiles. Then, one night, we ran into a very drunk, somewhat-chunkier-than-I-remembered Freddy Whitehouse.
“Well, look who it is!” he slurred loudly, stumbling to where Parker and I had just sat down at a booth in the corner of the bar. “It’s Allison Winger, everybody!” I don’t know who he was talking to. Nobody was with him.
“It’s Alexandra, actually,” I said dryly as he slid into the bench beside me and slung an arm over my shoulder. Parker tensed, but I shook my head at him. No big deal I tried to convey with my eyes, but I don’t know how well I sold the message. Every muscle in my body was screaming at me to escape.
“Right, right,” Freddy mumbled, tugging me closer. “Never thought I’d see you back here. I thought you’d run away for good.”
“Nope, I’m back in town,” I said, trying to shrug off his arm and move away from him on the bench. His arm just tightened.
“Hey, buddy, why don’t you go away,” Parker said, his hand clenched around his pint of pilsner. “Aly and I were talking.”
“And who are you?” Freddy asked dully, turning glassy eyes across the table before swinging his head back around to me, stale breath hot on my face. “Does he know you’re running around with other guys, Aly?” he asked, his voice sour with glee and genuine horror. “You know he’ll kill this little twerp, right?”
“We’re not together anymore,” I said, reaching up and tugging at his hand, trying to pry it off my shoulder. ”He doesn’t get to decide who I date.”
“Who is he?” Parker asked, brows pulling together.
Freddy laughed too loud, and I almost gagged as the smell of his breath grew overpowering. “He doesn’t know?” he laughed, his arm shifting up so that he had me in a near headlock. I clasped my hands around his forearm, trying to pull him away.
“Buddy, let her go,” Parker snapped, glaring at Freddy across the table. “Aly and I were just leaving, weren’t we babe?”
I tried to nod, but couldn’t with Freddy drunkenly hugging my head against his side. Part of me wanted to scream at Parker to fucking do something. Make a threat, throw a punch, stand up. Something. Then I remembered what appealed to me so much in the first place.
Parker wasn’t Nate. He was a pacifist, and friendly through and through. Violence wasn’t in his wheelhouse.
“Let me go,” I said, digging my fingers in so hard the nails bit into Freddy’s skin. He yelped and pulled his arm away, shifting across the bench.
“You fucking bitch,” he snapped, cradling his arm against his chest and glaring at me.
“Don’t call her that,” Parker said, his fingers turning white around his glass.
“Fuck you both,” Freddy slurred, rising to his feet. He gave me once last contemptuous sneer before turning to Parker. “You better watch your back, man,” he warned, jerking a finger toward me. “Little Ally here has a rabid doberman at her beck and call. You stick around, you’re gonna get bit.”
Parker stared after him, waiting until he’d stumbled back to the pool table before turning to me.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asked.
I’m fine, thanks for asking. “He’s just some asshole who I went to school with,” I said, waving a hand. “He used to bully Tom.”
“No, I mean what was he talking about I’m gonna get bit?”
“Just...” I trailed off, unsure how to describe everything that had transpired between Nate and I. How could I even put into words what we had experienced together and what I had experienced on my own after we broke up. “I went through a little bit of a phase in high school,” I said with a shrug. “I dated a guy I probably shouldn’t have. He was pretty messed up. Fighting and drugs and stuff like that. He went to prison before we graduated and I haven’t talked to him since.”
“What did he go to prison for?” Parker asked, his eyes wide. “Drugs?”
“No...” I shook my head, peeling at the label of my own beer. Had Nate ever even done drugs? I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. “He killed a guy.”
“What?” Parker choked on his beer, setting it down on the table with a clunk. “Like... how? Like he shot somebody?”
“No...” God, why was this so hard? Nate wasn’t in my life anymore. I wasn’t responsible for his bad character. I didn’t need to feel ashamed of his bad decisions. “He beat his foster father to death. He got sentenced to manslaughter, though. Crime of passion. It’s not like it was premeditated.” Jesus, am I actually defending him? “But I didn’t know he was that twisted up,” I said quickly. “And as soon as I found out I broke it off. I haven’t spoken to him in six years.” Technically five and a half, if you counted my letter. The one letter I sent to him after months of silence.
“What else don’t I know about you, honey?” Parker asked, raising his beer for another sip. His hands were shaking.
“That’s pretty much it,” I said, but my mind was spinning like a whirligig. There was so much I hadn’t told him. The truth about my mom, my struggles with my father, the saga of my relationship with Nate, my brief bout of depression. I had found a man whom I could trust to be completely honest, and instead of sharing in that honestly I’d turned into the secretive one. Nate’s bad habits had rubbed off on me.
Aside from that one encounter, however, Nate was pretty much a nonentity in my life. I only thought about him rarely, and what few acquaintances I saw around town knew better than to bring him up. My life was easy. Happy. Straightforward.
The local university was a decent school, but their physics department was weak so the department head practically came in his pants when I dropped off my resume. Within a month I had moved from a temporary lab assistant internship to a full-time teaching assistant and research partner. I had my own office, a salary, and health insurance. I opened a 401k. I was leveling up in adulthood.
Then, out of the blue, Nate had the audacity to return home and I felt my life crumbling beneath my feet. I don’t know how I knew it was coming. Maybe it was just a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either way, as I stood in the kitchen unloading groceries while Tom munched happily on Oreos at the counter, the earth shifted and moved underneath me and I knew my period of peace was coming to an end.
That night, against my better judgment, I locked myself in my bedroom and pulled a tattered old shoebox from beneath my bed. One by one, I pulled out old memories that I hadn’t confronted since leaving home six years ago. A ticket stub from my one and only real date. The rock Tom gave me from the spot. My diary from the summer we moved. A tattered pocket Bible I’d had since my very first Christmas. And there, at the bottom of the box, a small stack of letters in sealed envelopes.
Setting everything else aside, I slowly flipped through the envelopes. There were thirteen of them, and I went through them one by one, reading the dates stamped by the postal service. The first one was stamped on 27 May, just a couple weeks before I graduated high school. The second was stamped on 10 June, two days after graduation. Number three on 22 June. Then 8 July, a few days before my birthday. 24 July. 31 July. 5 August. 22 August. 2 September. 15 September. 1 October. 4 November. 14 December.
A rush of guilt hit me when I reached the last letter. I had received it while I was home on holiday break that first year of college. With a semester beneath my belt, I was feeling more confident and secure and it took little out of me roll my eyes and drop it into the shoebox beneath my bed. “Just leave me alone, asshole,” I’d whispered under my breath, kicking the box back under the bed.
Later that night, I had gotten a little drunk on Rum and Coke, smuggled from my father’s dusty liquor cabinet, and took the box downstairs. Sitting cross legged on the floor, I lit a small fire in the fireplace and held the letters in my hands, staring at the flames. I picked up the first envelope and held it over the fire, and the corner caught flame. Tongues of yellow blackened the folded edge of the envelope and my blood turned to ice water.
Suddenly sober, I had wrenched the envelope out of the flames and hastily beat the fire out. I don’t know what stayed my hand. I wanted the letters gone. My anger towards Nate had, at that point, crystallized into something cold and heartless. I hated him. I wanted no part in his life nor piece of his heart. I just wanted every reminder of him gone from my existence.
So it wasn’t logical that I panicked and put out the fire, or that I carried the letters back up stairs and tucked them back into their box with near-reverential care. It made no sense, and at the time I hated myself for my weakness. Now, I lay awake at night and my chest tightens at the thought of what would have happened if I really had destroyed those letters. This story would be either much shorter, or much longer and more fraught than it already is.
I didn’t destroy them, and two days later my father was late coming home from work. “Sorry, sugar,” he said, kissing my forehead as I took his coat. “I was just getting ready to leave when one of my parishioners showed up.”
“I hope everything’s okay,” I said, hooking his coat onto the rack by the door and following him into the kitchen, where he slumped into a chair at the table. He nodded absently.
“It was actually a girl you know. Deb? She’s in my Single Mom’s Ministry. She knew the boy you used to see.”
The boy you used to see. “Yeah, I know her,” I said, trying not to let any emotion into my voice.
My father leaned back, rubbing his eyes. “She’s having a tough time,” he said. “And it doesn’t help that that boy can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble. She’s running herself into the ground worrying about him. I’m concerned she’s going to go into premature labor with all the stress.”
“What trouble is he getting into?” I asked, fighting my traitorous mouth as it uttered a question I shouldn’t have cared enough to ask.
“Oh, you know him,” my father said, rolling his eyes like we were commiserating. Like he knew Nate as well as I did. I hated that it made my spine prickle with challenge. “He can’t seem to stay out of trouble, according to Deb. Getting himself into fights left and right. Apparently he got into it pretty bad last week. Took a shiv to the back or something. She didn’t even find out until he missed his third check in with her and she called the prison.”
My knees gave out beneath me and I sank into the chair across the table. He’d said the words with such nonchalance, I almost convinced myself I hadn’t heard him right.
“You said he was stabbed?” I asked, my voice a ragged whisper.
“He’s fine,” my father said quickly, reading my distress and frowning at me as if to underline my own self-reproach: You shouldn’t care. You shouldn’t care. You shouldn’t care.
Unfortunately, I did care, and that conversation drove me to write my one and only letter to Nate-- the letter that punctuated our correspondence, ending the sentence of our relationship for the better part of six years. I had kept a copy, and it was tucked into the bottom of the box, beneath the stack of envelopes. I don’t know why I kept that copy. Partly to torture myself, I think. Partly as a safeguard, should I ever second guess myself and my decisions. On those rare occasions when I doubted myself, I pulled it out and reread my own reasoning and conviction-- laid out in terms and statements so simple and blunt even Nate could understand--
I heard what happened. I’m glad you’re gonna be okay. It sounds like it was a close call. Deb told Dad. Apparently she’s pretty broken up about it. You gotta look out for yourself and stop picking fights. You’ve got a kid to think of, now.
I love you. In case something happens, to either of us, I want you to know that. I’m not doing this because I don’t love you. I’m doing it because I love you too much. Knowing how I feel for you, I just can’t give myself the chance to go down that road. I forgive you for sleeping with her. I’m not angry with you anymore. I just can’t do it. Things could never go back to the way they were. I don’t think I could live with you, always wondering if you would cheat on me again. Wondering if the violence that got you locked up is the rule and not the exception. I’d resent you too much. I’d fear you. There’d be no trust, and that’s not a way to live. We both deserve better.
So please stop writing to me, because you’re only hurting us both. I know you get your hopes up every time you put a letter in the mail, and I think you know how much it breaks my heart to throw them away. I’m not reading them. I won’t read them. I’ve burned them all. Please stop writing.
I love you. I forgive you. I hope you find happiness, Nate, I really do.