Chapter 19 - Nate
I kept a hand on Al’s leg the whole drive back to my place. Partly because I loved to touch her but mostly because I had this crazy feeling that if I didn’t ground myself, physically, that entire version of reality would turn to water and trickle through my fingers.
We pulled to a stop at a red light and I surrendered to the invisible strings pulling my eyes toward her. She smiled at me from the passenger seat, ringlets of hair framing her face, her eyes glistening with mirth and desire. So beautiful. Too beautiful. She was too perfect. Not for the world. Nobody is perfect for the world. Alex was perfect for me, though. Everything about her fit so well into who I was. The convex of her leg to the concave of my palm. Her fire to my ice. Her rapid fire wit to my slow sarcasm. Her piercing light to my darkness.
We were built for each other.
“Hey, Nate?” She raised her eyebrows at me.
“Hm?” I reluctantly let go of her leg and reached up to toy with her hair. My fingers itched to pull that hair tie out and see those curls tangled and splayed out on the mattress beneath her while I--
“The light’s green, hon.”
“The light is green.”
Oh, shit. So it was.
* * *
I parked the car in my spot outside my building and was halfway around the engine block when she slammed into me and like that we were kissing. To be honest, the scene wasn’t all that romantic. The winter’s snow was half-melted into grayish slush at the edges of the asphalt. The cold air was harsh and bitter. The fluorescent streetlight illuminating the parking lot buzzed and cast a sickly glow.
Alex smelled good, though. Like shampoo and arousal. And she tasted like water to a parched tongue. And when I pulled back and looked down I could see the pink flush in her skin despite the pallid, flickering aura of the streetlight.
Then her hands snaked up beneath the hem of my shirt and icy fingers brushed over my back. I hissed in a breath, breaking the kiss to glare at her.
“Not here,” she said around a smile. Then she grabbed my hand and we were half-sprinting up the stairs. When we reached the landing we were both breathing hard, and I fumbled to get the key into the lock while Al hugged me from behind and fumbled with my belt buckle. She was trying to kill me, I swear.
The second the lock gave way I shoved the door open and staggered through, dragging my girl with me. She shoved the door closed behind her and twisted the deadbolt while I shrugged out of my jacket and tossed it in the vague direction of the kitchen table. Her eyes met mine as she unzipped her own coat and I couldn’t fucking wait. I walked her back against the door and shoved the jacket off her shoulders and down her arms, kissing a path from her mouth, down her neck, down the deep V of her sweater. Then her hands were free and she grabbed my head and brought my attention back to her mouth.
I was dizzy with need. Frantic with arousal. I couldn’t get close enough. I pinned her against the door with my body, buried my hands in her hair, explored every nook and cranny of her mouth, and still it wasn’t enough.
“Bedroom,” she gasped, having pulled away from the kiss just long enough to suck in a breath and utter the word. Her voice was raspy and breathless, soaring like an operatic solo over the symphony of our mutual arousal. She started to push me away, but I held her close, shifted my hands down to her ass, and picked her up.
Guys do that a lot in movies. It’s a romantic gesture, I guess. It’s not very practical, though, unless your girl is ridiculously small. Alex wasn’t ridiculously small. She was a regular sized girl and I damn near threw out my back lifting her off her feet, but I barely noticed because it wasn’t a romantic gesture. It was need. Need to keep her close. Need to hold her tight. Need to stay beneath the surface of this fantasy.
As soon as she realized what I was doing she wrapped her legs around my waist. Then she dipped her head for another kiss, sucking the air from my lungs and sending every last drop of blood down south. We staggered down the hallway and Alex reached out blindly, twisting the handle just seconds before I threw a shoulder into the door. We flew into the room and I dropped to my knees by my shit mattress, tipping forward until Alex was on her back.
She made a grab for the hem of my shirt, but I pushed her hands away and attacked her sweater. I wanted her naked before me and I didn’t want to wait. I was forced to break our kiss, tugging her up into a seated position so I could pull the sweater over her head. When she was trapped, arms above her head and still tangled in the sleeves, I pressed her back down.
Silence descended, and for a moment all I could do was stare.
She’d lost her hair tie somewhere during our frantic entryway kiss, and her hair was splayed out on the sheets, just like I wanted it. Her eyes glittered in the semi darkness, her lips swollen and parted as she sucked in panting breaths. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, rounded curves straining against the fabric of her bra. Red lace. Using one hand to keep her arms pinned above her, I brought the other down and ran my fingers along the edge of the bra, feeling the contrast between stiff fabric and smooth skin. It was probably itchy as hell. I really ought to liberate her of that discomfort.
The tension snapped, sending us careening back into frantic, clumsy motion.
Giving the sweater one last yank, I freed her hands and pulled her up again, capturing her mouth with mine. Thwarted in their effort with my shirt, her hands found their way to my belt and fumbled with that until while I reached behind her and unclasped her bra with a flick of my fingers. She hadn’t made much headway with my belt, but I didn’t give a shit. I had this image in my head-- one that head teased me every night for too long to measure-- that I needed to recreate. Freeing my own desperately straining dick could wait a couple more minutes.
“Stop,” I breathed, pushing her hands away and shoving her gently back onto the mattress. She flopped onto her back, sliding her bra down her arms and tossing it to the side while I hastily unbuttoned her pants and peeled them down her legs. My misfiring brain barely registered the fact that her underwear matched her bra before I hit a snag.
Winter is an inconvenient time for hasty, desperate sex. My fingers were a little clumsy, as all the blood had abandoned them for a different extremity, and I struggled with the laces. As I worked, I glanced up at Alex to make sure she was still there-- still connected to the infuriating contraptions on her feet.
She was. She never disappeared like she always did in the dreams that looked so much like this. She just lay there on her back, arms outstretched by her side, chest rising and falling with her breath.
I got one boot off.
Then the second.
Then her jeans, which were so wonderfully tight they dragged her socks off with them.
Rising up on my knees, I reached for her underwear and pulled them unceremoniously down her legs, tossing them behind me.
The light coming through the blinds slashed in harsh diagonal lines across her thighs and belly, but the rest of her was cast in an otherworldly orange glow. I dropped forward onto my hands and crawled up so that I could reach her. As soon as I came close she reached for my shirt again, but I pushed her hands away again.
“Not yet,” I told her, surprised my voice still worked with how dry my mouth was.
“But I want--” I stole the words from her mouth with a kiss, shifting my weight to my right arm and cupping my left hand over a breast. Her skin was flushed and warm to the touch, and the slightest tweak of my fingers had her back arching up off the bed, a moan of pleasure traveling from her mouth into mine. I broke off the kiss and pushed myself back up, shaking my head as she scowled and parted her lips, probably to yell at me.
“Just give me a second,” I demanded, brushing my thumb over her frown. Her forehead remained furrowed with annoyance, but she didn’t object when I let my fingers leave her mouth and trail over her cheek and down the side of her neck. Goosebumps rose on her skin as I followed her collarbone and moved down between her breasts, drinking in the sight of her and the feel of her. It was so painfully, undeniably real.
Her breath hitched as my fingers kept moving south, and her hands came up to rest on my shoulders, digging in. So much of her had changed, I noticed. The last time I’d seen Al naked she was just a girl. All soft curves and innocence. The woman lying before me now was just that-- a woman. She was still slim, but her hips had widened and her muscles were more defined. That patch of hair between her legs was neatly groomed and the shy vulnerability of her youth had given way to a beautiful, brazen kind of confidence.
It pained me to think of her with other men. Obviously. During one of our post-food-heavy-topic conversations we had discussed the partners we’d both had since parting ways. Mine consisted of a long string of women who patronized the bar where I worked. Hers were a long string of college guys. She didn’t have a type, she’d told me. She’d slept with football players and frat guys and drama majors and engineers and wannabe philosophers. They were all fine, she told me. Just fine. Even Parker, she said, was fine.
And for all that I wanted to castrate those fuckers for laying a hand on her, the reasonable, mature, therapized version of me had to admit that it wasn’t all bad. She had, after all, come back to me in the end. What was more, now that she was lying here before me in every inch of her naked splendour, I had to admit I kind of liked that she was experienced. It made her sexy, in a way she hadn’t been before.
She’d always been beautiful to me. Alluring in her innocence and intoxicating in her enthusiasm. She’d never really been sexy, though. Not like this woman who lay before me with no shame, no shyness, and six years of experience. Who would we be together, now?
Somehow, I knew we would be better.
Of course, none of that was really going through my head while I mapped her naked body with my fingers. At least, not in so coherent a manner. At that time, I wasn’t really thinking at all. I was just sensing. I was soaking in the sight of her, testing her realness with my fingers, and listening for sounds of protest. When my senses finally came together and told my frantic lizard brain that she was both real and ready, there was no time for reflection.
I dropped forward onto my elbows and kissed her again, drinking her in in long, thirsty gulps. When she reached for my belt that time I didn’t stop her. I let her set me free while I wrapped one hand in her hair, covered her body with mine, and trapped her.
We made music together. Heady, thumping music composed of stark sounds that rose up and hung in the still air above us. The clink of metal as she finally released my belt. The wet, smacking sound of desperate, messy kisses. My zipper. The rasp of skin on fabric as she shifted on the mattress beneath her. The crinkle of the condom wrapper.
My groan of frustration as necessity forced me to push away from her for long enough to get the damn thing on.
Her giggle as she flopped onto the bed and waited.
Silence. Absolute silence as I hovered above her, waiting for permission.
And then all the sounds that were hanging in the air came falling back to the floor around us and we lived in them. We writhed in them. We multiplied them, adding the sounds of flesh on flesh. Gasps. Moans. Groans. Heavy, desperate breathing. Her whimpered “please” and my answering silence because there was nothing to say. Whatever she wanted, I would give it to her.
We crescendoed together into a roaring, perfect clash of sound and sensation that drowned my thoughts and filled my blood with fire. Alex and I ceased to be, melted down to stark essentials and mixed together until all we were-- all that defined us-- was our union.
I came before she did, and it was a blessing because I emerged from the haze just in time to watch her surrender. For all that I was spent, I still revelled in the feel of her spasming around me and marveled at the sight of her arched up off the mattress, head thrown back, eyes closed, teeth clenched around her lower lip in a wasted attempt to stifle her scream.
Then she sagged back to the ground, panting, each sobbing exhale a repetition of the same word.
“Finally,” she gasped, reaching up with a shaking hand to push her hair off her face. “Finally,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around my neck, pulling me down for a sweet, languid kiss. “Finally,” she breathed, pushing me back and blinking up at my face.
I felt like I’d been wrung out, every muscle in my body weak and worthless. With all of my body and soul, I wanted to lay down right there on top of her. I wanted to cover her body with mine, hide her from the world, and sleep like a dead man, with no dreams and no lingering worries lurking in my shadow. With her beneath me I’d know that not a thing in the world could get to her. I could rest, because there was nothing left for which to wait.
I almost did it. Alex was half asleep herself, eyes heavy and content, her hands linked behind my neck, still holding me to her. She didn’t want me gone any more than I wanted to leave. I could just lie down. Grab a cat nap. No harm, no f--
They tell you to turn your damn phone off in the theater for a reason. That shrill, repetitive ringing has a way of ruining everything. Alex stiffened beneath me at the sound of my ringing phone, and for a second I considered ignoring it.
Then my sex-drunk brain caught up with me and reminded me I was a father.
“Fuck,” I hissed, struggling to extricate myself gently and yank my pants back up far enough to reach the pocket. The phone kept ringing as I fumbled, and with each chime my mind sprinted farther from sex and rest, hauling ass into full-on panic.
What if Matt got sick? What if he got hurt? What if one of those little punks was mean to him? What if he wanted to come home and snuck out and got snatched off the street? What if he didn’t get snatched but got lost and died of hypothermia? What if he had some allergy I had yet to discover and died on the ride to the hospital? Why the hell else would I be getting a call in the middle of the night, if not to respond to some calamity?
“Hello?” I gasped into the receiver as I finally got the phone out and hit answer.
“Mr. Reynolds? This is Marge McAdams.”
“Is everything alright? Is Matt okay?” I was practically yelling at the woman, and I didn’t care. The blood was rushing in my ears and I could barely hear myself speak.
“Everything’s fine,” the older woman soothed, and I could hear a smile in her voice. “Matty’s just a little homesick and I think it’s best if you come pick him up.”
Oh, thank God. “No problem,” I managed, flopping onto my back as the tension rushed out of me. I felt Al’s hand on my arm, squeezing slightly in a subtle combination of question and reassurance. “I’m leaving now,” I told Marge. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
* * *
Matt’s face was stained with tears, but he wasn’t crying when Marge opened up the door and let me into her foyer. I stepped inside and before I had a chance to ask her what had happened, my son was flying around the corner.
I reached down and plucked him off the ground before he could slam into my legs and he squeezed his arms around my neck and buried his face in my shoulder.
“What’s the matter, little man?” I asked, rubbing his back and raising a questioning eyebrow at Marge. She just shrugged a shoulder and shook her head.
“I think Matt was just feeling a little bit homesick,” she said when he didn’t answer. “He came out a little while after we put all the kids to bed. I guess he’s a bit of a night owl.”
“I guess so,” I agreed, reaching up and prying Matt’s arms from around my neck. “Where’s your stuff, buddy?”
“It’s right around the corner in the living room,” Marge said smilingly, gesturing with her head. “No need to take your shoes off.”
The McAdams’ house was a perfect slice of quintessential middle class America. The family room boasted an L-shaped couch monstrosity, a flatscreen TV, and a smattering of family pictures on the wall. Mr. McAdams sat at one end of the couch, watching a prerecorded football game. He looked up and jerked his chin at me in acknowledgment.
Matt’s things were stacked neatly at the other end of the couch and I sat down and began working him into his boots as Marge prattled on about how great the party had been, and how happy she was that Matt could make it.
She was a nice lady. Although Matt’s face was puffy, he wasn’t crying, so I assumed she’d made a successful effort at comforting him before I arrived. That won my favor. That and the fact that she and her husband had let him come over at all, knowing who I was and what I’d done. No kid should have to suffer for the sins of the father. Most people believe that. It’s just nice to find people who actually live by it.
“Thank you so much for coming over, Matt,” Marge said as she waved at us from her front porch. “You’ll have to come over and play again after school, sometime!”
Matt didn’t say much as I buckled him into his booster seat and climbed behind the wheel, tossing his backpack onto the passenger seat. When I glanced in the rearview to back out, I caught him watching me with a glassy sheen of fresh tears in his eyes.
“What’s the matter, Matty?” I asked as I shifted into drive and accelerated down the McAdams’ quiet residential street.
“Are you mad?” he asked, his voice quivering.
“Of course not, little man. Did you have fun at the party?”
I glanced back at him again when he didn’t answer and saw that his face was twisted with intense internal debate.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “Until bedtime.”
“What did you guys do?”
By the time we got home I was all filled in on the minute details of every moment of the party, from the pinata to the cake to the movie. More importantly, Matt seemed to have forgotten to be sad.
Eventually we’d have to work through his separation anxiety, but it didn’t have to be that night. He was only six, after all, and it was stupid of me to think he’d be ready for a full-on sleepover so soon after everything that had happened. Hell, even I wasn’t really ready to be separated from him. He’d been so excited for it I’d feigned enthusiasm, but it made my palms clammy dropping him off and a weight had lifted from my shoulders the second I had him in the car.
We’d get through it. Someday.
Exhaustion and his rescue from homesickness filled Matt with a manic kind of energy. He was so animated I had to read three chapters to get him to calm down. When he finally relaxed into sleep it was after 1 and I was half-asleep myself.
I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face, because I needed to be awake. Alex was waiting. I’d left her naked in my bed with promises to pick up where we left off. “Just a little quieter,” I had said, and she’d laughed and swore she would stay awake until I got back. We’d fucked hot and heavy, and now it was time to do all that ‘making love’ business. I wanted to savor her. Taste her. Really make her beg.
I knew the second I opened the door that she was asleep. Even before my eyes adjusted, showing me the still lump of her body beneath the covers. Before I registered the sounds of slow, slumbering breath.
She was curled up on her side, her face relaxed with sleep, covers tucked up to her chin. As quietly as possible, I shucked my jeans and crawled beneath the covers with her and reached out, running a hand down her side.
Her breath hitched, and she shifted closer, but she didn’t wake and I didn’t have the heart to pull her out of rest. I stretched out on my back and stared at the ceiling. After that first humiliating evening, I didn’t sleep much when she spent the night. I wasn’t quite ready for her to know that nightmares were the rule, not the exception. I wasn’t planning on keeping anything from her. I just wanted to ease her into how irreversibly fucked up I was. If I threw her right into the deep end she might drown.
So I kept myself up until the last hour of the night, knowing that wouldn’t be enough time for my brain to drop me into the nightmare of REM. It wasn’t a terrible burden. It meant I had the whole night to just lay there and bask in her presence. There are worse ways to spend the wee hours of the morning. In a sense, it was like going back to our adolescence-- back to the days when we forsook sleep and good sense to run together in the woods.
Alex sighed in her sleep and reached out, wrapping one arm around me and pulling herself close. She rested her head on my shoulder, warm breath penetrating the thin fabric of my shirt. My arm would be asleep in five minutes but I didn’t give a shit. If your house was on fire and the sky opened up and started raining, you wouldn’t complain about a wet shirt. You’d just stand there and let the rain soak you to the bone and thank God for saving your house.
The minutes stretched out and my mind wandered in the stillness. With Alex there beside me, I was free to explore things that I’d left too long unaddressed. I could wander down dark paths without worrying that I’d lose myself. Her presence was a safety tether. Every time things got too dark, too guilty, or too painful, all I had to do was listen to the sound of her breathing, brush my fingers over the softness of skin, and the light came back.
I thought about Deb, that night. I’d been beating back her memory for too long-- both the guilt and the anger. I hated myself for what I’d done to her. I’d never forgive my complacence. She’d lashed out because she was in pain, and instead of acknowledging that pain and helping her I had turned my back. I’d rolled my eyes at her struggle and let her freeze me out when she needed me most. At a time when I was all she had, I walked away.
I’m not stupid enough to believe that was what killed her. Sobriety and friendship wouldn’t have saved her from a burning building. But I could have at least made her last months less lonely. She didn’t do heroine because it was fun. She did it to escape. And I’d turned into yet another thing from which she was running. I should have been a friend. A brother. Instead, I’d become yet another source of judgment and letdown.
I couldn’t have saved her from the pain of her final moments, but I could have saved her from the loneliness. Maybe if I’d been better to her, she’d have believed me when I said I would come back. Her last seconds of life, albeit painful and frightening, could at least have held a hint of hope. I had trouble convincing myself she’d believed me. I hadn’t given her any reason to do so.
Alex hummed a little-- a happy sound-- and her fingers tightened in my shirt, bringing me back to the present. I slammed back into my body with the realization that I needed to change. I didn’t deserve her. I don’t deserve her. But what I deserve had never factored into our relationship. She was mine, regardless of my worthiness, and she didn’t deserve to be hitched to a guy whose entire world was clouded by guilt. She didn’t need to be chained to my past.
Psychiatric attention was mandated by the terms of my parole, but I hadn’t been putting much heart into it. I’d been forced into therapy every week since the day I entered the foster care system, and I’d learned how to play the doctors over a decade age, cherry-picking the help I wanted and ignoring the rest.
I’d actively sought out their help after Deb brought me that first ultrasound, because it occurred to me that my kid didn’t deserve a father who couldn’t control his temper. I’d told the doctors about my piece of shit father and all the piece of shit fathers and mothers that came after. I’d let to them explain the science and cycle of child abuse. I’d internalized the fact that my rage was a scientific anomaly, born of circumstances, and something that I could control. I’d practiced their stupid calming exercises and taken up hobbies to vent my anger.
All the rest, though, I’d ignored. I never asked them to help me sleep, or told them the stories that weighed most heavily on my mind, because I didn’t want that kind of help. The guilt and the shitty sleep were my cross to bear.
The problem was, if Alex and I kept walking down our current path, my issues would become hers. If I had my way, she wouldn’t be sleeping over once a week forever. Someday, hopefully soon, she’d be sleeping over every night. She’d live with me. We’d share a life. And I couldn’t stay awake forever.
Alex didn’t deserve to lose sleep because of my nightmares. She didn’t deserve to drown in the tsunami of my guilt.
Maybe it was time to stop doing the universe’s job. I’d get my due in the afterlife. Justice would find me eventually. It was time to practice a little patience and stop chasing after punishment that would only wind up hurting the people I loved.
It was time to make a change.