Chapter 21 - Nate
I shouldn’t have left this shit for the last minute.
“Okay, little man, what color do you want?”
Matt and I stood side-by-side before a towering wall of binders. He only needed one. One three-ring, 1-inch binder. It was the first item on our back-to-school list and I could already tell this trip was going to be a long one.
Don’t get me wrong, now. I loved my son. I loved his intellect, his maturity, and the wisdom in his eyes. I loved how careful and serious he was, and how diligently he processed all of his decisions. I especially loved that when he was thinking, he wrapped a hand around the back of his neck, studied the object of his scrutiny, and sighed heavily.
I never noticed it until Al pointed it out, but after she did I saw it everywhere. He mimicked the way I thought, the way I sat, the way I walked, and the way I ate. When I started wearing a baseball cap with the warm weather, so did he. When I used a word he didn’t understand, he demanded a definition and then used it twenty times a day, every day, until I used a new word he didn’t understand. Then we’d start the process all over again.
A small part of me cringed away from it. Especially when he did stupid shit like tell his friends he was going to go to prison someday, and insist that he was going to be a mechanic when he grew up. There’s nothing like a little clone to magnify and broadcast your flaws.
Mostly, though, I loved it. There was no Tim in my son. None at all. Sometimes, when the sun caught his hair just right, I saw a reddish tint in the brown that he couldn’t have inherited from Deb or I. In all other respects, though, he was Deb’s and he was mine. He had Deb’s eyes, Deb’s stubbornness, and Deb’s soul-deep sweetness.
Everything else in him was me. He smiled like me and laughed like me, and he wanted to be me so badly it made me strive with a manic desperation to fix myself. If he really was so dead set on using me as a role model, I’d be damned if I didn’t set a worthy example.
Enough about me, though. Back to the binders.
I loved everything about my son, including the fact that he didn’t have an impulsive bone in his body. It just wasn’t my favorite quality, right at that moment.
“They’re all the same, kiddo. Just pick one. You like green, right? Let’s get a green one.”
I reached for a forest-green binder, dropping my hand with a sigh when he shook his head.
“That’s dark green,” he told me solemnly. “I like regular green. And I want one of the ones that zips.”
I bit back a sarcastic comment and nodded.
“Okay, how about one of these? See? It’s got spots for pencils inside!” I presented it to him like a waiter at a cocktail party.
Caviar on crackers, monsieur?
“Those kind are the coolest,” Tom said, from where he was leaning against the handle of our cart. “You should get the black and yellow one, though. It looks like it has a race stripe.”
Matt looked at me, looked at Tom, and looked at the binder Tom was pointing to. His lips pinched together in thought, brow wrinkling. I held my breath.
“Okay,” he said, pushing up onto his tiptoes and pulling it down while I tossed my rejected sample back onto the shelf. One item down. I glanced at the folded up piece of salmon-pink printer paper in my hand. Fifteen to go.
Jesus H. Christ.
The rest of the trip followed the same example. Everything was a debate. Regular yellow pencils or the fancy green kind? Pink eraser or the one shaped like a racecar? Standard color markers or the Tropical! pack? Loose leaf construction paper or tear-out? And then we got to the backpacks...
I swear to god, he was like a middle-aged father trying to negotiate the best deal on a used mini-van. Every minute detail was crucial to the decision-making process. Color? Pockets? Pockets within pockets? Water-bottle pouch? Waterproof? Chest strap? Waist strap?
I was sprouting gray hairs when we finally checked out and I dragged my two charges to the car. The cashier had obligingly put most of our purchases into Matt’s new backpack, which he carried to the car with a shit-eating grin on his face. I couldn’t help but worry a little. The damn thing was as big as him. That couldn’t be good for his back.
Tom sat in the back seat with Matt and they chattered away as I drove, discussing topical issues of great import, such as Matt’s colored pencil selection, the best surface on which to drive a remote control car, and ‘Oh my gosh is that a police dog?’ It was not, in fact, a police dog. It was a just a massive German Shepherd who, by the looks of it, was walking the young man holding its leash. Not the other way around.
I’ve got some un-fun police dog memories, so I’m not that great a fan of German Shepherds, but that’s my own damn problem so I just said yeah, it looked like it might be. When that prompted a slew of questions about why dog and walker weren’t in uniform, I made up some shit about how they were probably undercover. Then, seizing the opportunity, I said that any dog you see might be an undercover police dog so you always had to ask permission before petting dogs you see on the street. Even if they look super friendly.
Parenting: a study in tactical lies.
Alex and her father were already seated at the Italian place when I rolled up with my still-chattering charges. Matt, of course, insisted on bringing his new backpack in with him so he could show everybody his selections.
“How was your shopping trip?” Alex asked with a smirk as I slid into the seat beside her. We’d situated Matt at the end of the table and Tom sat across from me next to his father.
“Dante was wrong,” I whispered, leaning close so the boys couldn’t hear me. “There are 10 levels of hell and I just survived the inner circle.”
Alex laughed and rolled her eyes just as the waitress arrived to take our drink orders.
Dinner passed without much incident. Tom and Matt had their heads together the whole time, working with the cup full of broken crayons to decorate their colorable placemats. Al, her father, and I talked about the weather, about work, and about politics. We talked a little bit about the engagement, too.
We’d told the boys a week ago about our pending marriage, expecting a slew of questions. Although I’d teased the idea with Matt before proposing I was still nervous about how he might respond. It turned out to be a complete non issue.
“What does it mean to be married?” he’d asked, perplexed.
“It means your daddy and I will live together, like your friend Will’s parents,” Alex had told him gently.
“But you already live with us,” Matt had said, turning to me with a confused frown. “She already lives with us.”
“Right, but this means she’ll live with us forever,” I told him.
He just frowned harder, clearly unimpressed with my answer. What else was there to explain to a six year old, though? Tax incentives?
Then there was Tom, who had even fewer questions than Matt.
“When?” he asked.
“We’re not sure, yet.”
“We haven’t decided that either, buddy.”
He had looked at us like we were idiots, told us we needed to decide, hugged us both, and ran off to find Matt.
Then, of course, there was her father. I’d asked his permission about a week before proposing, a courtesy Alex called “unnecessary and vaguely sexist” when she found out, but I was still glad I did it. He’d asked me a series of preacher-like questions about loyalty and devotion and, when I answered them, nodded solemnly, stood, and shook my hand. Then he told me that if I hurt her it wouldn’t just be him I’d have to answer to. It’d be God himself who made me pay. I didn’t quite have the heart to tell him I already had plenty to answer for so that wasn’t much of a threat. I just nodded back and thanked him.
When we told him together, the reaction was less subdued. He cried and hugged his daughter and told her he knew she didn’t like his church, but if she thought anyone else was officiating she had another thing coming. Then he shook my hand hard and pulled me into a back-slapping hug and said “welcome to the family, son.”
So there I was, having a back-to-school celebration dinner with my kid, my fiance, and my future brother- and father-in-law. My family. No one at that table hated me for being in Al’s life. Everyone was supportive of our relationship. My shrink said I was making “remarkable progress” and Matt’s had cut him back to once-monthly visits because he was doing so well.
Everything was right with the world. I knew better than to think it would last forever, because nothing good does. I was, however, stable enough at that point in my life to be happy in spite of the looming unknown. What use there be in wasting the good moments dreading the bad ones?
* * *
Nobody’s perfect, I guess. It’s like I was saying before, though. Nobody’s perfect, but Alex was perfect for me. Her flaws fit like puzzle pieces into mine.
Take the snoring, for example. To a normal person, snoring would be annoying. It would keep you awake and grate on your nerves until eventually you either got used to it or gave up and started sleeping on the couch.
I didn’t just get used to it. I loved it. Every night, I waited until she fell asleep and started snoring. Then I followed her down and, no matter where my fucked up mind took me, the snoring followed-- a soothing, audible escort through the madness.
If I found myself back in that cell in solitary, it snaked its way between the screams and the accusations. If I dreamt of the fire, it hovered above my head, background noise to Deb’s screams. If something had set me off during the day and sent me all the way back to my childhood, there it was-- the soft sound of snoring, keeping me company while I hid with Jake in the closet or cowered before some towering, faceless aggressor.
The dreams used to wake me up, without fail. Every night I’d fly into wakefulness with ugly sounds still echoing in my ears and a coat of cold sweat on my skin. With Alex snoring in my ear, though, I slept through them. With that nagging sound to anchor me in reality, some part of me knew it wasn’t real, and I’d keep my head down and move through the horror. The worst would pass and I’d slide out of REM into deep sleep without ever waking up. My shrink called it progress. I called it a goddamn miracle.
Ten days after our engagement, I woke before dawn feeling refreshed and energized. Alex was still asleep, sprawled out on her back beside me with one leg thrown over mine.
That was another thing that had happened in the months we were together. At first, we slept twined around each other like one or both of us would disappear if we let go. After a while, though, we mellowed out, moving back to separate sides of the bed and sleeping like normal, non-codependent human adults.
Except, of course, for the ubiquitous single point of contact. Sometimes I’d wake up on my side with an arm thrown over her. Sometimes I’d wake up to find her leg tangled with mine. Sometimes she’d have a hand curled over my arm. Whatever it was, there was always one point of contact. Reassurance, for both of us.
Blinking sleep out of my eyes, I extricated myself from Alex’s leg, slid carefully out of bed, and walked to my busted up set of drawers. As quietly as possible, I dressed for the gym and let myself out of the room, leaving Alex snoring on my mattress.
It was 5 am on a Saturday morning, so the streets were dead as I descended the stairs of the apartment building and broke into a jog. The sky was gray with the approaching sunrise and the streetlights had begun to wink out. I ran through shadows, letting the slow burn of exertion spread wakefulness down my extremities and clear the fog in my head. Birds chirped in the trees lining the street and mist hung in the heavy air. Within five minutes I was drenched in sweat, but I didn’t mind it. It felt good. Cleansing.
The gym I patronized was two and a half miles from my apartment. It was a crappy gym-- one of those places with mustard-colored walls and musty air, where most of your fellow gym goers are roided out, neckless assholes with tribal tattoos and sweat-stained wifebeaters. I liked it, though. It was cheap and everyone minded their own business.
“Morning, Nate,” said the man behind the reception counter, without looking up from his magazine.
“Javier,” I acknowledged as I walked past him, not bothering to pull out my wallet and show my ID.
There were only two other people working out-- Sam and Don-- and they both looked a lot like Javier. All three had buzz cut hair, wore sleeveless workout shirts, and sported biceps as big around as my thigh and calves as big around as my forearm. All three communicated mostly in grunts and listened to screaming metal while they worked out. All three liked to talk about cars and easy women and supplements. The only thing that distinguished them was phenotype. Javier was born in Guatemala, Sam’s great great great grandparents were slaves, and Don was a spray-tanned white guy from Ohio. Beyond that, they were identical.
Sam was doing curls, watching his biceps bulge in the mirror before him. Don was sprawled out on the inverse bench, issuing out bellowing grunts every time he pushed the weight up into the air.
“You gotta stop running, Nate!” Sam yelled at me as I made my way to the squat rack. “You’re burning up all your mass, you skinny fucker.”
I flipped him the bird, racked a couple plates for my warm up, and sank into the comfortable repetition of my workout. I didn’t work out to cultivate mass. I worked out to blow off steam. I didn’t mind that the other guys gave me shit, though. Men gossip as much as women, and it was common knowledge by that point that I could put them all six feet under if they fucked with me, “mass” notwithstanding. All I ever got was some flak for being “skinny” and then they left me alone to my workout.
I stayed at the gym for an hour, lifting until my muscles were weak and shaky. Then I jogged back home. Matt sat on the couch in his PJs, a bowl of cereal balanced precariously in his lap, and Alex perched at the counter, bent over a newspaper, one hand curled around a steaming mug. Bright, morning sunlight warmed the walls of the apartment and the air smelled like coffee.
“Morning, daddy!” Matt greeted without looking away from the TV.
Alex craned her neck around and scanned me with a feigned expression of disgust.
“I didn’t know it was raining,” she said, turning back to her newspaper. The air had only grown more humid as the sun rose and the run home had left me dripping.
“Morning, Matty!” I tossed at my son, crossing the floor and wrapping Alex in a tight, unwelcome hug.
“What the--” she broke off with a squeal, struggling to free herself as I lifted her off the stool and showered the side of her face and neck with kisses. She alternated between laughing, shoving at me, and making dramatic noises of disgust.
“Morning, sweetheart,” I said, setting her down and laughing when she placed her hands on my chest and shoved me away with a mock scowl on her face.
“You’re fu--” she broke off, glancing over at Matt. “You’re disgusting,” she scolded, holding her arms out to the side and looking down at herself as if I’d just tossed a bucket of fish guts at her or something. “Go take a shower.”
“I will, but you need one, too,” I said, poking her in the side as she slipped back up onto her stool. “You’re all sweaty. It’s kinda gross, sweetheart.”
She just rolled her eyes and smacked me lightly with the back of her hand. I stole one more kiss, which she finally returned, and excused myself to the bathroom.
Throughout the months, Alex had helped me make adjustments to the apartment which she claimed were necessary for civilized living.
I had a box spring, for example, to lift my mattress up off the ground. And a flea-market kitchen table, and a coat rack by the door. The couch had throw pillows on it, every room had “accent lights”, and random knick knacks had started appearing on every available flat surface. In the bathroom there were towels upon towels upon washcloths, and a thing called a hamper where I had to put my dirty clothes. I thought it was stupid and unnecessary and protested its presence by continuing with my original system of “pile in the corner of my room” but Alex didn’t like that. She called me a slob and made a dramatic show of carrying my dirty clothes to the hamper herself, and after that I used the stupid thing.
Discarding my workout clothes in the hamper, I showered off, wrapped a towel around my waist, and, after listening for Alex’s voice in the living room, darted from the bathroom to the bedroom. I had managed, through the six months of our relationship, to keep my clothes on around her. She’d succeeded in ripping my shirt off a few times during sex, but I only let it happen in the dark and as soon as she fell asleep put it back on.
There were some things I wasn’t ready for her to see. Some topics I still wasn’t quite ready to broach. And if you’re calling me an idiot and wondering why I was willing to share a life with a girl but unwilling to take my shirt off in front of her, you’re probably smarter than me. Smarter than me, and asking questions I should have asked myself before circumstance forced my hand in the matter.
Safe in the bedroom, I continued drying off, exchanged the towel for boxers and jeans, and fished through my disorganized drawer for a serviceable t-shirt.
“Hey, Nate, do you want me to make another pot of--”
Alex broke off as I spun around, glaring at her. She’d pushed the door open and was hanging through the opening. Her face had gone pale, her eyes wide, and she slipped into the bedroom and pushed the door shut behind her, leaning back against it.
“You forgot how to fucking knock?” I snapped, yanking a shirt over my head. Too late. Too fucking late.
“You forgot how to lock a door?” she shot back, but there wasn’t much bite in her voice. “Nate--”
“I didn’t think I needed to lock the door,” I growled. “I thought you knew how to knock.”
“I didn’t think I needed to knock,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “We’re engaged, love. You understand marriage is going to be kind of tough if you insist on being fully clothed every minute that we’re together. We need to talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I told her, trying to keep my voice low so Matt wouldn’t hear us. “Can you please go start another pot of coffee?”
“No,” she said, raising her chin. “We’re going to talk.”
“No heavy talk until after food,” I reminded her. It was a feeble, pathetic attempt and I could see Alex agreed by the broken mixture of sadness and annoyance that passed over her face.
“Take your shirt off,” she ordered, stepping forward. I had to fight hard not to back away from her.
“No,” I said.
Yeah, why, asshole? You honestly think she’s gonna leave you over a couple scars?
No, of course I didn’t. I didn’t think she’d leave me over some scars, or even over the sob story that went with them. I was just scared as shit that she’d leave me over the conversation that would undoubtedly follow. So the best I could do was to backpedal as fast as possible, treat this like a non-issue, and hope that conversation never happened.
“Because Matt’s awake. Now’s not the time for sex,” I teased, praying she’d choose that moment to become stupid enough to fool.
No dice. She just narrowed her eyes and tapped her foot and didn’t say a damn word.
“Fine,” I said on a dramatized sigh. Reaching back, I tugged the shirt over my head and tossed it on top of the dresser, holding my arms out by my sides. “Satisfied?”
Reaching back, she pushed in the lock on the door handle and stepped forward, closing the distance between us. I stood stock still, forcing myself to breathe as her eyes scraped down my bare chest. Then she circled around behind me and my skin crawled as her gaze swept over my back.
I knew what she was seeing. Everyone’s body tells a story. Take Al’s for example. Her body was lean and muscular, in a way that told you she liked to move. She had faded tan lines and streaks in her hair that spoke of long summers spent in the sun. Her temple sported that silvery, spider web scar from the night I took her virginity. A raised pink line on her forearm told the tale of an incident with an exposed nail during a spring break spent volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Her nails were chewed to the quick, which told you she was a little anxious, but her toenails were perfectly manicured, which revealed that she liked to be pampered. Oh, and back then she had a thick callus on the inside of her right middle finger from holding a pen, scribbling calculations and correcting assignments.
Al’s body told a nuanced story-- not without flaws, but overall hopeful and happy. Mine, on the other hand? Mine was a physical manifestation of the parts of me I was trying hardest to escape.
My muscle definition wasn’t a healthy sign of dedication to fitness. It bespoke a restless, simmering energy that had to be exorcised daily lest it boil over into something dangerous. My marked up skin didn’t tell stories of growth and self discovery, either. It was a graphical representation of everything I hated most about myself and my past. Every mark had a story, and none of them were pleasant.
There were puffy, pinkish lines on my sides and back that came with vivid memories of pain and sickening, panicked bloodlust. There were long, silvery slashes on my chest I earned while I watched an 18-year-old kid die because he trusted me to protect him. Then there was the surgical scar and hazy memories of waking up in the infirmary to great news--that I’d managed to avoid getting ass raped in the shower-- and soul-crushing news-- that, in the ensuing struggle, I’d accidentally slammed my attacker’s head into the tile wall a little too hard and killed him. And of course, never to be forgotten-- the shiny red patch on my shoulder from a piece of burning wood the night I let Deb die.
Damn near all of my fuck ups were immortalized on my skin by pain and circumstance. Even on those rare occasions that fate decided to let me forget, I’d taken matters into my own hands and gotten the memories inked on my arm. Solid black lines for the lives I had taken. Detailed bands for the people I’d failed.
All totaled up, it should have been enough to drive Alex away, but I knew it wouldn’t. She was too kind for that. Too compassionate. I knew exactly where her mind would go and it wasn’t my transgressions.
“Nate,” she sighed as she circled back around and gazed up at me with tears riding on her lashes. “I’m so sorry.” Then she was hugging me, her cheek pressed against my chest, hands splayed across my back.
You see what I mean? She was too fucking good.
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” I told her, pushing her back and retrieving my shirt. I sighed internally as the material settled over my shoulders, saving me from further scrutiny.
“Yes I do,” she said forlornly, sitting heavily on the edge of the bed. She leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees and burying her face in her hands. “You think I’ve forgotten, but I haven’t. You never let me finish apologizing.”
“Because you have nothing to apologize for,” I repeated.
“Yes I do!” she exclaimed, her voice a harsh hiss as she struggled to convey her frustration without the sound carrying out to Matt. “How can you possibly look me in the eye and tell me it’s okay that I left you to endure all of that alone?”
“Christ, Alex,” I sighed, combing my fingers through damp hair and trying to breathe through long-dormant emotions that were beginning to rise. “You act like there’s something you could’ve done. Just let it go, okay? I don’t want to have this fucking conversation.”
“Now, or ever?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Ever,” I said confidently. “It’s pointless.”
“Why?” she asked on a sigh that was more of sob, clenching her hands together in her lap. “Why can’t we talk about this, Nate? What are you keeping from me? I thought we were done with secrets.”
“We are!” Frustration joined the embarrassment and anxiety stewing in my blood and I had my to force my voice not to rise in my vehemence. “I’m not lying to you, Alex. I’m not keeping shit from you. I just don’t want to have this conversation with you because I don’t know how to make you feel better about this one, okay?”
She jerked back as if I’d slapped her, rising to her feet and bracing her hands on her hips.
“You think that’s what this is about?” she hissed at me. “You think I’m trying to make myself feel better? I’m trying to apologize to you, Nate! It has nothing to do with me and my feelings.”
“That’s all it’s ever been about, Alex,” I said, knowing my words were cruel but unable to stop myself. “I forgave you years ago. I forgave you long before you had a chance to apologize, because you did nothing wrong. You did the best you could with the information you had.”
“If you’re not angry then why can’t we talk about it?” Alex challenged. “I want to understand, Nate. You keep so much of yourself locked up, sometimes I wonder if I even know the man I’m marrying.”
It was my turn to step back, feeling as if she’d slugged me in the chest. There was too much truth in her words. I kept the bulk of who I was hidden from her, out of necessity. If I let her see everything, she’d either run screaming, pity me, or both. The thought of either was unbearable. I’d finally won her back. I woke up every morning to find her looking at me like she used to when we were kids-- like there was something I could offer that she couldn’t get from anyone else. But it wasn’t fair to do that to her. We’d said no more lies, and letting her believe none of the bad shit had ever happened was as good as lying.
“What do you want to know?” I asked, and I felt like I was sitting in a courtroom once more, waiting to be sentenced.
Alex stared into my eyes, like she could see the answers to all her questions if she looked hard enough.
“I want to know every story,” she said, lifting her chin, her fingers digging into her sides as she stared me down.
“That’s a lot of stories, sweetheart,” I said weakly.
“Then we’ll just start with one,” she said, stepping close with a soothing hint of mischief in her eyes. For a second, I had a little hope as soft curves pressed against my chest and she stood on her tiptoes and kissed me. Then, without warning, she went straight for the figurative jugular.
Her hand came up between us, fingers brushing lightly over my chest, following the path of a rib, curving around my side, tracing the worst, ugliest mark I carried. The one that came with vivid, snapshot memories of the stench of blood and harsh detergent, the sound of whirring industrial washing machines, and the sight of Jamel Baker’s lifeless body, his wide, sightless eyes, staring into mine. Memories of frigid, life-sucking pain, the sensation of drowning, and the cowardly, pleading hope that when I closed my eyes I wouldn’t have to open them back up.
“This one looked really bad,” Alex said, flattening her palm over the jagged, eight inch mark that had tried so hard to kill me. As if reading my mind, she went on. “Did you think you were gonna die?” she asked, tipping her head back and looking up at me with pleading eyes, just begging to be lied to.
“I didn’t. I’m fine.”
“But did you think were going to?”
“Yes,” I admitted through gritted teeth.
“I was there, though,” she said, so sure. “You said in your letter I’d be there, and I was, right? You weren’t alone. I was there.”
I knew what she wanted me to say, because it was what I’d tried so hard to convince myself of in those first few months-- that our love was somehow eternal, somehow capable of transcending time and outwitting circumstance. That no she wasn’t reading my letters and yes she hated me, but someday she would read them and she would love me again. And some part of that version of her-- who loved me-- would forsake the boundaries of time and find its way back so that I wouldn’t have to die alone.
I’d fooled myself into believing in a fairytale, and when the moment had come I’d waited. I had waited for the painted cement floor of the laundry room to give way to the abrasive granite of our rock; for the slowly-churning steel ceiling fans to give way to the stars; for Jamel’s slack, gray face to dissolve and make room for Alex’s teasing smile.
None of that happened, though. The world just faded and got colder, the air got thicker, and suddenly I’d stopped wishing for death, because I realized in that moment that death didn’t mean a fateful return to the spot. It didn’t mean an eternity with my girl. For people like me, death just meant emptiness-- vast and cold. Opaque and soundless. Lonely.
I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t even want to think about it. To me, that memory was damning proof that what I had with Alex couldn’t last. Even if it carried us through to our old age, it wouldn’t follow us into death. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I loved her or how truly she loved me back, someday fate would tear us apart. Nothing good lasted forever.
“Nate,” Alex said, patting me gently on the cheek. I looked down into her eyes and I could tell she’d read my silence correctly. She knew the answer to the question, but she asked it again anyway, begging me to set her straight. “I was there, right?”
Her eyes were sorrowful and full of love, and I wanted to lie-- just to let her believe in our fairytale. But she deserved to know the truth.
“No,” I said quietly, and the air felt unbearably cold as she stepped away, hurt and shock draining her face of color and darkening the blue of her eyes. I swallowed hard and shook my head, forcing myself to meet her gaze. “No, you weren’t.”