Chapter 22 - Alex
“No, you weren’t,” he said, and my gut reaction was hurt. Hurt, mingled with frustration. Something dark and terrifying lingered in the back of my mind, but the frustration was louder and easier to deal with, so that was what I chose to feel.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest to protect my heart from the cold detachment in his eyes.
“Why should I have told you?” he asked, lifting a shoulder in a shrug. “It doesn’t matter, Alex.”
“Yes it does! Everything matters, Nate!” I unfolded my arms and reached up, gripping his shoulders and shaking him slightly. “Everything in your past matters to me. If you want me to stop apologizing I’ll stop, but I still need to know.”
“Why?” he exclaimed, stepping back and out of my grip. “What good is there in telling you, sweetheart? What are you going to do about it? The past is done. There’s no use revisiting it.”
“It’s not done, though!” I argued, driving my hands into my hair in frustration. “You’re carrying it around with you everywhere you go, Nate. If they were just stories you wouldn’t be so scared to tell me.”
“I’m not scared,” he said through gritted teeth, and we both knew he was lying. He was scared and so was I, because neither of us knew where this argument was going. It wasn’t a debate-- one side versus another. It was the two of us slashing and hacking away at feelings and ghosts that were wedging themselves between us and driving us further and further apart.
“Well I am scared,” I said honestly. Wearily. I looked up at his face and saw his eyes shutter and his jaw lock.
“You don’t have to be,” he said quietly, his voice pleading. “I’d never hurt you, Alex.”
I choked on a groan of frustration. “I know!” I hissed. “You’d die before you hurt me. You’d die before you hurt Matt or Tom. I’m not scared of you, you fucking moron. I’m scared for you. You put all this effort into protecting everyone from yourself, but you won’t lift a fucking finger to protect you.”
“What the hell are you even talking about?” he asked, throwing his arms out in frustration. “I’m dealing with my shit, sweetheart. You know that. I just don’t understand how reliving it is going to help me, and the last thing I want is to lay all this crap on your shoulders, okay?”
How one man could be both the smartest and dumbest person I’d ever met was beyond me.
“We’re getting married, Nate!” I moaned in exasperation. “You have to lay shit on my shoulders. That’s what being married means. It means we share our burdens, and your past is a burden to you. I want you to tell me everything because I deserve to know what I’m getting myself into. I’m tired of wondering what’s lurking around the corner with you. You know everything about me. You took care of me when my mom died and you know that next week on the 26th I’m gonna need you to hold me a little harder. I want that same privilege. I want to love you louder on your bad days, but I can’t do that if you won’t even tell me when they are.”
“You don’t want to know, Alex,” he pleaded, scrubbing a hand over his face and rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.
“Yes, I do. I deserve to know, Nate! Do you want me to be your wife or not?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then fucking tell me!"
“Fine!” he yelled, and then we both fell silent, waiting to see if Matt had heard his outburst. Long, tense seconds dragged by as we stared at each other, ears peeled for Matt’s voice. Finally, Nate sighed, lowering his head and sucking in a deep breath. When he lifted his gaze to meet mine, his eyes were cold. “Fine,” he said again, rolling his shoulders back and crossing his arms over his chest. “You wanna know what days are shitty, let’s start at the top of the year.”
“Okay...” I said hesitantly.
“January 12th,” he said. “Specifically, January 12th, 2003. Jamel Baker. He was my cellmate when I first got to the prison and I guess we were kinda friends. He was a freakin’ tiny little dude, so I looked out for him. On January 9th he crossed the wrong white supremacist gang and on January 12th they cornered us both while we were working in the laundry room. I killed two of them before they stuck a shiv between my ribs and pinned me down. Then they let me watch while they sliced him up and then slit his throat. He was seventeen, Alex. A fucking seventeen year old kid who held up a convenience store with a water pistol when he was sixteen but got tried as an adult because he was a poor black kid with a petty record and a shitty public defender.”
“February 15th, 2003” he went on, ignoring me. “Dave Porter. He pulled me aside in the yard and said he was afraid for his life. He was gay, and I guess that information got out. Someone told him I could protect him, but I told him to fuck off. Matt had just been born, and after that shit with Jamel I was trying to keep my nose clean and stay outta shit. That night, Dave got cornered in the shower and gang raped by twelve dudes. Hung himself in his cell three days later.”
I stepped back-- not away from Nate, but away from the reality of what I’d gotten myself into.
“March... fuck...” he trailed off, glancing down at the inside of his right forearm, and I realized with a gut-wrenching start what those tattoos were. I thought I’d seen words scrawled into some of them. Now I knew what they were-- dates. “March 3rd, 2008. Just a few months before I got out actually. Peter Burnett. Older guy who showed me around when I first got to the pen. We were kinda friends, I guess. He was a good dude, and people mostly left him alone, but he must’ve pissed someone off. I think he snitched or something, because on March 3rd a couple of the guys who ran drugs inside decided to put the beat down on him in the yard. I got them off him, but not in time. He fell into a coma and died a month later.”
I’d taken another step back, but Nate’s eyes still held mine. It felt like he was begging me to stop him, but I couldn’t. I needed to know.
“April 15th, 2003, couple weeks after Pete died,” he said. “Will Hammond. This PO I was kinda friends with. He wasn’t a bad dude, just in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong uniform. There was a riot. It started in the cafeteria and spread like wildfire, and Will got cut off from the other officers. The place was a fucking madhouse, and a bunch of guys just started kicking the shit out of him. I tried to get to him but they dropped the gates and I ended up on the wrong side.”
He paused, his eyes flicking toward the door. When he went on, his voice, already scarcely more than a whisper, had dropped so much I had to step forward to hear him. “March 3rd, 2002,” he uttered. “You and I went on a date. Deb broke up with her boyfriend and ended up at home without me. Tim forced himself on her.
“May 25th, 2002. I caught Tim trying to go into the girls’ room again. I confronted him and we fought, just like we had a thousand times before. We woke up Marsha, though. She brained me with a lamp and Tim got the upper hand. Trish tried to get him off. He tossed her against the wall. I lost my shit...” he trailed off, shaking his head slightly as the forced apathy on his face gave way to firm resolve. “I lost my shit on purpose, Alex,” he clarified, his eyes boring into me. “I wanted him dead, so I killed him. I caved his head in and I was happy to watch him die.”
He held my gaze, waiting for me to speak. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. You did the right thing? Except he hadn’t, and by the twisted look in his eyes he knew that. You’re a monster? That wasn’t right either, though.
“June 18th, 2005,” he rolled his eyes and smiled, but there was no real emotion in the gesture. “Quentin Wilder. Fuckin’ skinhead motherfucker. I was good, at that point-- seeing the shrinks about the anger shit and all that. I still fucked people up, but only as much as I had to to keep me and my people safe. I wasn’t necessarily good, I guess. I was still in prison. But things were manageable. I had a good reputation. Idiot kids came to me for protection and the gangs avoided me. Life was pretty easy. Except this group of new guys decided they didn’t like that I had power and no gang, and they decided to make an example of me.”
Even though the story was years old and had clearly turned out ok, my blood turned to ice. For thousandth time, my brain demanded that I consider the wretched what-if. What if the story hadn’t turned out fine? What if he’d died? What if I had to scatter his fucking ashes at the spot? What if I’d burned the letters and I’d gone the whole rest of my life hating him?
I had the sudden urge to throw myself bodily into his arms, but I forced my hands to my sides and just listened.
“They came at me in the gym,” Nate was saying. “I got hold of a 25 pound plate. Smashed one guy’s kneecap, busted the second guy’s ribs. I swear to you, Alex, I was just trying to hurt ’em enough to get away. But the third fucker, Quentin, he grabbed me from behind and I wasn’t paying enough fucking attention. When I got free I swung the plate and caught him in the side of the head. They kept him on life support for a month or two, but he was brain dead when they brought him in.”
“July 4th, 1992,” he smiled, but it didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. “Ralph Reynolds. Independence day. I was eight. I came home from playing outside and found my dad passed out on the kitchen floor. He threw up. I watched him choke on it. I was plenty old enough to know how to call 911, or at least to push him up onto his side, but I didn’t. I wanted him to die, and he did.”
Chills crawled up my spine at the ice in his voice and his eyes locked on mine, daring me to call attention to it.
“July 13th, 1996” he said. “That’s the day they took Jake. It was good guys that took him, and it’s also the day I met you, so that day’s not so bad. I still let him down, though. I should’ve told him everything was gonna be alright and been happy for him, but instead I pitched a fucking fit and sent him off terrified. And I was jealous, too, Alex,” he said quietly, like that was somehow the worst thing he’d said to yet. His eyes grew haunted. “It was the greatest thing that could possibly have happened and instead of being happy I was fucking jealous." He looked like he expected me to hit him, and when I didn’t he shook his head slightly and went on.
“August 3rd, 2002,” he said. “Randy Crawford. It was my first month in the pen, so I was still trying to figure my way around. Randy was this big white guy who was sorta the king of the showers. I don’t think he was gay, he just really fucking liked sticking his dick in people who didn’t want him to. He got me on my own before I knew better. Knifed me a couple times and got me down on the floor. I flipped my shit. That was before the shrinks taught me how to control it. I got him off me but sorta overdid it on the turnabout. Smashed his head into the tile too hard and killed him. Nobody tried to fuck with me in the shower after that so I guess the story ends happy.”
“September 20th, 1991. I was... seven, I think. Yeah, seven, cuz Jake was just a baby. Dad came home drunk. Mom didn’t have dinner ready. Dad beat the shit out of her. He’d smacked her around before, but never like that. Usually I got the worst of it, but that night it was her. I got fucking scared and hid in the closet with Jake. I never even tried to stop him. He ended up breaking her arm so we took her to the hospital, and dad told them she fell down the stairs. They pulled me aside and asked if that was true and I was scared so I said yes. They sent mom home with an Oxy prescription and she took to that shit like dad took to liquor. By the time I killed my dad she’d already moved on from prescription opiates to heroine.”
It took me a second to unpack what he was implying-- that responsibility for his mother’s drug usage somehow fell on the shoulders of a seven year old. By the time it dawned on me he had already moved on.
“November 3rd, 2002,” he said, scrubbing his hand over his hair. He was running out of steam. I was too. We’d only been talking for minutes, but it felt like years had passed. I felt like I had been darting around history, reliving all his worst memories with him. “Monica Walters,” he said, hanging his head for a second before continuing. “I’d landed kitchen duty, which was a pretty sweet gig if you were in the Brotherhood. I wasn’t in the Brotherhood, so they kinda took issue with me on their turf, especially since I was so tight with Jamel. They tried to take me out, and honestly I wasn’t really at the top of my game. I let them catch me off guard and probably would’ve killed me if this female PO hadn’t interfered. I was still out of it when they turned on her, and by the time I got my shit together a couple of them had already forced themselves on her. I got my hands on on her baton and killed two of them before the cavalry arrived. She didn’t die, but I imagine she probably wanted to at some point.
“November 26th, 1998. Joe Newman. Foster family number... fuck. Eight, I think. Maybe nine. I was fourteen, in any case. Joe was a year younger than me. We’d overlapped a little bit in the system. He had a lot of fucking issues. I knew that, but I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t tell any teachers or our foster parents, even though those ones were okay. Honestly, I thought he was just being dramatic, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. He got his hands on a gun and shot himself on Thanksgiving.
“December 16th, 2008,” he smiled sadly, and I realized we were drawing to the end of the journey. “My apartment caught fire. The ceiling collapsed when we were fifteen fucking feet from the door. Deb was pinned. I wasn’t strong enough to get her out. I promised her I’d come back after I got Jake out, but I didn’t.”
For several long seconds we stared at each other in silence. I was processing, my mind spinning a million rotations per minute as I struggled parse through the facts he’d presented and the implications thereof. Nate just waited. When I didn’t speak, he stepped forward and framed my face in his hands, peering down at me with a heartbreaking mixture of love, contrition, and sorrow.
“I want you to be my wife, Alex,” he said quietly. “And you’re right to believe that I would never raise a hand against you. I’d die before hurting you, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hurt. Bad shit hides in my shadow, angel. I can stand here all day and tell you that I’d give my life to protect you but you’re a scientist. Evidence matters to you.” His eyes crinkled in a sad smile as he referenced the speech I’d made back in January. Then the smile disappeared and his hands fell away from my face as he stepped back. “All the evidence I have to offer suggests that I’m shit at keeping people safe.”
“So what?” I asked, sinking onto the edge of the bed and folding my hands in my lap. “What are you saying? Where does that leave us?”
“That’s up to you, sweetheart,” he said softly, crouching in front of me and placing his hands on my thighs. “You were right to call me out on being afraid. I avoided this conversation with you because I was fucking terrified. You’re just wrong about why I was scared. I was never afraid to be honest with you. I love you more than life itself and I trust you with every piece of me, broken or otherwise.”
“Because I knew how this conversation would go, Alex. I knew how it would end, anyway.” I didn’t realize I was crying until his thumb brushed a tear off my cheek. “You’ve got the important data now, angel, but I can’t collate it for you, and I can’t decide what you should do with it. That’s on you. Just know that I love you, no matter what you decide. If you stay, I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. If you leave... if you leave, I understand. I won’t be angry. I won’t come after you and try to change your mind. I’ll fight for you, tooth and nail, in every other regard, but I won’t fight for you on this. I’m not going to chain you to my life by force. If you’re going to stay, knowing what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do, I have to know that you made the decision freely.”
My mind was revving like my car the day I blew the transmission. Just screaming, wasted gas while the gears refused to engage. His words tumbled over in my head as he rose into a crouch, cradling the side of my face in his hand, and pressed a gentle kiss to my forehead. Then he stood up straight and left, leaving the door ajar behind him.
It wasn’t enough that he was gone from the room. I needed space. I couldn’t think in that tiny space with the scent of him all around me, sitting on a bed where I’d made love to him and slept in his arms. The walls were closing in around me and I couldn’t breathe.
Stumbling, fumbling, I stood and left the room. Nate was sitting next to Matt on the couch, laughing at something his son had said. He didn’t even look up when I appeared, and that was for the best. I couldn’t get my mouth to form words as I swiped my keys and wallet off the counter.
I’m just going for a drive, I tried to say as I pulled the door open, but the words wouldn’t come. I’ll be right back. I’ll see you guys in a little bit. Instead, I just left in silence, hurried out to my car, and started driving. The morning was thick and sticky, and I rolled the window down, hanging my hand out and combing my fingers through heavy air.
Slowly, grounded by the asphalt beneath my tires and the wind roaring in the window, my mind cooled and all the chaos began to coalesce into manageable, sortable clusters of information. That was how my mind worked. For Nate, everything always seemed to just make sense, all the little snippets of life coming together into a big picture that only he could see. For him, life was an art form.
For me, it was different. I needed to sort and compartmentalize and analyze. I needed order, and to work my way into a solution. For me, life was a science.
The first thing I needed to address was my feelings-- primarily the fear. The sadness I understood. It was logical. I loved Nate with every square inch of my soul. His stubbed toes and papercuts made my heart lurch. Of course it made me sad to finally know the extent to which life had hurt him. Of course it hurt me to know that he’d all but died without me by his side. Of course it broke my heart to finally have a grasp on all that shit that haunted him.
The agitation made sense, too. Some people have a protective streak, but Nate had a protective... everything. Every bone, muscle, ligament, and tendon in his body was oriented toward keeping the rest of us safe. I loved that about him, but it also drove me up the wall and back down it again. Maybe if we were frontier pioneers or something, I’d have liked it a little more. Protect me, love! I’d have crooned from the front porch of our log cabin. Then he’d have left to fight bandits and I’d have gone back inside to churn butter and darn socks and die in childbirth.
The problem was we weren’t pioneers in the nineteenth century, and I needed to make him understand that I didn’t need to be protected, always, from everything. I could look after myself and I could look after him, if the need arose.
So the agitation made sense, along with the sadness. The fear, though? Where the hell was that coming from? It had crept into my chest, settling cold and heavy in my lungs as his words spilled forth. Not fear of him. Of that I was certain. Perhaps, I thought, I was afraid because I finally realized the truth in what he had told me.
His world was dark and violent, beyond my ability to comprehend. My life, as my father had said, was not without its trials. I’d learned throughout life not trivialize any one person’s problems by contextualizing them with another’s.
It wasn’t about personal pain, though. It was about the color of reality. My mother’s death, as painful as it had been, didn’t alter the fabric of my world. My foundation didn’t change with her passing. My life, by and large, was happy and the world around me was, by and large, bright and filled with good people.
Nate’s world... wasn’t. I’d always known things weren’t easy for him, but I’d underestimated the extent to which our lives differed. His protective ‘streak’ wasn’t a chauvinistic veneer. It was beaten into the marrow of his bones back when I was still worried about scraped knees and dolls.
He’d said that before-- “my world”-- and I’d always brushed it off, because it didn’t make sense. We weren’t from two different planets, and it seemed an unnecessary provocation to imply that we were. Now, I wasn’t so sure. Because those stories he’d just told me-- stories that I knew only scraped the surface of the shit he’d been through-- would not have occurred in my world. Bad things happened on the streets I walked, but they weren’t so relentless. Cruelty was the exception, not the rule.
So maybe I was afraid because I finally realized the truth in Nate’s reticence to let me in. He was trying to protect me, and that day for the first time I realized that maybe I did need to be protected. I was grown in soil, not forged in fire. If, in marrying him, I really did step out of my world and into his, could I survive?
It wasn’t even a question worth asking. Yes, of course I would survive. Perhaps not on my own, but I wouldn’t be on my own. I had him.
Just as I reached that conclusion, I found myself sitting in my car in the parking lot of my father’s church. It wasn’t my intended destination-- I didn’t have one-- but it was, I felt, the right place to be.
Shifting my car into park, I pulled the keys from the ignition and stepped out into the sticky air. I was still wearing sleeping clothes-- shorts and a t-shirt-- so I felt a little indecent as I stepped into Bible-musty, air-conditioned entryway of the church.
I knew he’d be around. He was always at church on Saturday, getting ready for the following day’s services. I found him in his office, and he did a double take as I knocked on the open doorframe.
“Aly...” he broke off, squinting at me dramatically and rising slowly from his chair. “Is that my daughter, Aly? In my church?” He looked down at his watch. “Christmas isn’t for four months, sugar. What are you doing here?”
“I was just wondering if we could talk,” I said with a weak shrug, and the jovial expression fell off his face.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” I sighed, sinking into one of the wooden seats across from his desk.
“What’s the matter, sugar?”
I sighed again, slumping low in the seat and pressing my fingers to my temples, staring determinedly at the front edge of his desk. It was made of cheap wood, dull and unlacquered. The edge was chipped away, revealing light, unstained pine beneath.
“You remember back when I first started seeing Nate again?” I asked, picking my words carefully.
“I do,” he said patiently, and I could tell from the light, gentle way he talked that he wasn’t speaking as a father. He was in full-out preacher mode and, for once, I was grateful.
“You told me I needed to talk to him,” I went on. “Because I deserved to understand what I was getting myself into.”
He didn’t respond, and I looked up to see that he was nodding, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk and his hands clasped together. He raised his eyebrows. Go on.
“We talked,” I said, watching his eyes as I did. They didn’t betray anything. No relief, no surprise, no cold indifference. He just looked... patient. It was infuriating. “We’d talked a little bit before, but never like today. I still don’t think we’ve really covered everything, but today it actually felt like a real conversation. Every time before, it was just snippets, and it always felt like he was telling me about someone else’s life.”
I sat up straighter in the chair, suddenly restless in my father’s indulgent silence. My knee began to bounce and I reached up and scrubbed at my eyebrow.
“I’m not going to leave him,” I said quickly. It seemed, in that moment, of paramount importance that I make that clear. To my father, to myself, and to the world at large. “I love him, and I know he wouldn’t hurt me. I’m just...” I groaned, leaning forward and scrubbing my face with my hands. What was my problem? What was I so afraid of? I looked up at my father and, like that, it came to me. Memories of the last years of their marriage poured into my awareness and I realized what had me so anxious.
“I’m scared I’m not cut out for it,” I blurted.
“Not cut out for what?” my father asked, his voice still infuriatingly calm.
“I don’t know how to fix him!” I exclaimed. “I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the shit he’s been through. If I can’t understand it, how can I fix it? What if I let him down and he... he...” I couldn’t even finish my sentence. What if he went off the deep end? What if the weight of his life drove him to something ugly-- drugs or depression or sheer insanity? I couldn’t handle that. I would fail him. I’d fail in my duty as a partner.
I expected grim acknowledgement, or shuttered passivity to indicate that I was on the right track. I expected some sign that my father, too, was worried about my capacity to handle what my marriage might bring. Instead, he just smiled, his eyes crinkling as he leaned back in his seat.
“Aly, sugar, take a deep breath,” he said, and I obeyed, pulling in a shuddering lungful of air and letting it out slowly. “Good,” he smiled. “Now I need you listen to me carefully, Alexandra. I know you don’t like to take my advice, but I hope you’ll make an exception today.”
“Two things,” he said, holding up a hand with two fingers extended. “First,” he dropped one finger. “It is not your job to fix him.”
“It is not your job to fix him, Aly,” he repeated sternly. “Only he can do that. Think back to when your mother passed, sugar. Did that boy put you back together?”
“Yes,” I said, folding my arms over my chest. “He did.” If I hadn’t had Nate during that period in my life, I could very well have fallen into the same hole that snatched up my mother.
“Are you sure?” my father asked, tilting his head at me. I opened my mouth to restate my firm position, but he went on before I could find the air. “Did he really fix you? Did he say magic words and make the pain go away? Or was he simply there to hold back the world while you put yourself back together?”
I wanted to argue, just to be contrary, but his words made me think. I thought back to that first night, and how I had waited for his embrace to bring everything back into order. But it didn’t. And I remember the ensuing months, how he’d teased me into games and pestered me to talk, hugged me, kissed me... and nothing worked. All he did was keep my nose above the water so I could breathe.
“Being married doesn’t make you the repairman for your partner’s dysfunctions,” my father said softly, his words gentle and quiet, dragging me carefully back from the memories he’d sent me into. “You’ll be his shelter in the storm, and he’ll be yours. It’s a beautiful thing, but that’s all it is.”
We descended into silence as I pondered his words. “What was the second thing?” I asked, finally.
“Ah, right.” He smiled and held up two fingers. “Number two-- I think you ought to ask yourself why you think he needs fixing, Aly.”
“How could he not?” I asked. “Daddy, if you had any idea the shit he just told me--”
“I understand,” he said, cutting me off with a wave of his hand. “I understand what you’re saying, sugar. I’m not asking why you think he should be broken. I’m asking why you think he is broken. What has he done or said, or failed to do or failed to say, that makes you think he’s in such dire need of aid?”
Well, shit. I hadn’t thought of it like that. What was I so worried about? The violence worried me, but what evidence did I have to suggest that he hadn’t already dealt with that? He’d been punched in the face with no provocation and all he’d done was work his jaw and threaten legal action. Hell, I had hit him in the middle of a heated argument and he’d just walked away. I’d seen him deal with shitty drivers on the road, with Matt’s tantrums, with rude customers, and with a broken AC unit on a July afternoon. Nothing set him off. Now that I really thought about, grown up Nate was less blood-thirsty berserker and more Buddha beneath the goddamned bodhi tree.
And what else was there? The nightmares seemed to have dwindled. He saw his “shrink” with religious dedication. He drank at most three beers at a time, and he hated drugs to the point that I worried he wouldn’t take them even if a doctor said he needed them.
The only persistent, unyielding problem I’d seen was his stubborn conviction that our relationship was somehow fleeting. It bordered on unhealthy, how convinced he was that I was some kind of dream that he’d wake up from without warning. That I was a reward he hadn’t earned, and that one day it would all turn out to be a cruel joke and I’d be ripped away. Or, rather, that I’d rip myself away.
To be fair, though, I did have an awful tendency of walking out on him when he most needed assurance that I wouldn’t.
“I gotta go,” I said, shooting to my feet. My father followed at a more leisurely pace, circling around the desk and wrapping me in a hug.
“Thank you for coming here, sugar,” he said, squeezing me tight before letting go. “You’re still coming to dinner tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah, we’re still coming to dinner,” I said, kissing him on the cheek. “Thank you for talking to me.”
“Anytime,” he said, and his amused chuckle followed me as I sprinted down the hallway and out of the church.
* * *
The apartment was empty when I got home. The breakfast dishes were soaking in the sink, the TV was off, and there was a note scrawled on the magnetic whiteboard I’d purchased for the refrigerator.
“At the park. Then movie. Back at 3.”
It was an innocuous note, if you didn’t know Nate like I did. I knew how to read between the lines, though. I’ll be out until 3, it said. If you need to leave without me around, you have until then to make your escape.
I didn’t make my escape. Instead, I cleaned the breakfast dishes. I started a load of laundry. I tidied up Matt’s toys and changed the sheets on both beds. I dusted and vacuumed and organized the haphazard pile of bills on the kitchen table. I moved my first laundry load to the dryer and started a second. I made myself a sandwich and realized that the fridge needed cleaning and we were almost out of food. So I cleaned out the refrigerator. I made up a grocery list, drove to the store, shopped, and brought my purchases home. I restocked the cupboards and refrigerator. I moved my second laundry load to the dryer and folded the first.
Then I made a pot of tea and sat on the couch in my clean apartment and read the paper until I heard footsteps on the stairs, and Matt’s voice outside the door.
“But there’s elephants,” he said, as the key slid into the lock.
“Well yeah, buddy,” came Nate’s muffled voice as the deadbolt turned. “But wooly mammoths aren’t the same as elephants.”
“But they look the same,” Matt said, his voice crystal clear as the door swung open.
“But they’re not the same thing, kiddo. Wooly mammoths are exti--” Nate’s voice broke off as he stepped inside and caught sight of me sitting there in the living room.
“Hi, Aly!” Matt exclaimed, bounding into the apartment. “Daddy, I’m gonna play with my legos.”
“Okay, little man,” Nate answered, still standing with his hand on the doorknob, staring at me. “Just an hour, though. We need to do your homework.”
Matt disappeared into his bedroom, and Nate just kept staring at me.
“You’re letting the cool air out,” I said, pointing at the open door. He nodded absently and pulled his keys from the lock, swinging the door shut and flipping the deadbolt behind him without breaking eye contact. “How was the movie?” I asked.
“Trite,” he said, walking to the table and sinking onto the far end of the couch, leaving a cushion empty between us. “I love my kid, but he has terrible taste in cinema.”
I laughed, and the sound followed us back into silence. Nate stared at the keys in his hand and I stared at the newspaper in mine. The wall clock in the kitchen kept time, each second echoing in the distance between us.
It was me who broke the tension. I carefully folded the newspaper and set it aside on the arm of the couch. Then I shifted sideways until I was pressed against his side, letting out a breath of relief when he lifted his arm and draped it over my shoulder.
“You’ve got to stop expecting me to leave,” I said finally, and all the tension that had been hanging in the air seemed to infuse itself into Nate’s body at the sound of my words. He went still, his arm tightening fractionally around my shoulder. I bumped his leg with mine. “And I need to stop leaving,” I finished.
He snorted at that and pressed a kiss to my temple, but didn’t respond. If I had to guess, I’d say he was afraid to.
“I love you. All of you. You know that, right?” I asked, leaning further into him and reaching over to take his free hand, twining my fingers with his.
For a long time, he didn’t answer. Then he pulled in a shallow breath, and when he spoke the words were quiet, but he might as well have screamed them for how hard they hit me.
“I don’t think you should, sweetheart,” he admitted, squeezing my hand. “I love you, too. Too much to let you delude yourself about who I am.”
“Well it doesn’t matter what you think,” I argued back. “I’m a grown woman and I get to decide how I feel and what I think. You told me I got to choose, and I’m choosing. Maybe your world is shit, but I’d rather endure hell with you than enjoy heaven without you. Understood?”
Again, he stiffened. His arm clamped around me, his hand tightened in mine, and for a second he held his breath. Then he sighed heavily, and his body relaxed against mine.
“I’ll keep you safe,” he promised, and I heard the intensity of the oath in the gravelly rumble of his voice.
“I won’t leave again,” I returned, closing my eyes and soaking in the feel of him at my side. I kept waiting to get tired of it, but I never did. Touching him-- however chaste the contact-- was like plugging in and recharging my batteries.
“If you do, I’ll wait,” he said.
Did you ever do that stupid get-to-know-ya ice breaker in college? Two truths and a lie? If you have, I’m sorry. If you haven’t, it goes like this: everyone takes turns, and when it’s your turn to speak you tell the rest of the group three things about yourself-- two true and one false. Then they have to guess which one is the lie.
I love you, I told him. I’d prefer hell with you to heaven without you. I won’t leave.
Truth. Truth. Lie.
I love you, too, he told me. I’ll keep you safe. I’ll wait.
Truth. Lie. Truth.