As break-ups go, it really wasn’t too bad. There was no screaming, nothing thrown, or broken. Somehow, that made it worse. It felt like there should have been some emotional outcry. It was too controlled. My hands started to shake, so I sat on them. I was full of nervous energy. I looked around the living room with panicked eyes. All of his stuff was gone. I was the only thing he left behind.
I grabbed the vacuum and viciously attacked the dust bunnies. I dusted the coffee table even though it was already clean and shiny. I sprayed the windows and wiped them dry with a paper towel. I looked around the living room for the next thing to clean. My breathing labored, not from exertion, but from sadness. My eyes fell on the bookshelf—on the photo album. I picked it up and ran my hands gently over the cover. Memories lived in photo albums, and not all of them kind.
My knees gave out and I crumbled to the floor. Paper dolls have more
substance than I do. I opened the album and ghosts poured out. They spoke in riddles, in voices I longed to forget. I slammed the book shut and threw Pandora’s Box back on the shelf.
Bob said he wanted something real. He wanted to crawl inside and see my soul. But what if my soul was ugly and dark? What if he couldn’t handle what lived there? What if he rejected me and carved another gash into my already troubled heart? Could I survive it? I picked up the photo album with shaking hands.
In movies, it’s usually raining when the hero goes to make everything right with his true love. There’s a moment of uncertainty between them, before his lover pulls him into warmth and safety and wraps her arms around him. The music swells, the audience cries as the lovers seal their commitment with a kiss. All is forgiven and no obstacle lingers between them. It’s cake in the movies.
I stepped out into the warm clear night. There wasn’t a rain cloud in sight, not even a cold breeze to make Bob take pity on me for forgetting a coat. Damn it. I hugged Pandora’s Box to my chest and headed for my car. I thought about turning back a hundred times during the fifteen-minute drive to Bob’s house. My stomach was churning. This clown had lost her laugh.
He lived in a row of townhouses. I knocked on his door and his nosy-ass neighbor stuck a bald-head out of the window. I scowled at him and knocked again. Bob opened the door and glared at me. I braced myself, “Can I come in?” My eyes pleaded with him to say yes. He shifted his weight to his other foot and leaned on the door jam. “Where’s your false bravado, Amy? It’s kind of clingy for you to rush over so quick, isn’t it? I’ve barely been gone an hour.”
My spine stiffened and my eyes hardened. “Never mind, if you’re going to be a dick, then forget it.” I turned on my heel. He grabbed my arm and pulled me into his apartment. His hand slid softly along my skin and I closed my eyes missing him even though he was standing in front of me.
“What do you want Amy?”
“What every girl wants.”
“Alright, what’s in your hands?”
His brown eyes narrowed on my face and I set the book on his coffee table. He closed the front door and I watched the way his clothes shifted on his long frame as he walked. At six foot six, he was taller than anyone I’d ever dated. His jaw was squared and strong, his hands stronger still and lined with veins. He sat next to me and I practically sprinted from the couch. I couldn’t sit next to him if he wasn’t touching me.
I paced the floor nervously. I felt trapped, caged by my own doing. I leaned over Pandora’s Box and felt a cool wisp of air rush up my skirt as it swirled around my legs. He ran his hand from the back of my knee to mid thigh and I froze. His familiarity with my body was heart wrenching. What if this was the last time he touched me? What if he hated what I had to tell him? He massaged the back of my knee in a soothing motion. I was anything but calm.
I tried to ignore the warmth of his skin on mine as I flipped through the pages of the album. I stopped at a picture of my brother. I tapped the image. “That baby is my brother just shy of two weeks old. Do you see that glass coffee table?” Robert nodded absently, his eyes searching mine.
I licked my lips, cringing inside. “I had to clean that table every day after school and it had to be perfect. If it wasn’t, then I’d have to do it again until it was. One night, when my brother, Michael, was almost three weeks old my ex-step-father came home drunk. That was nothing new, he was drunk all of the time. But this night he had gone drinking with his son, Junior. Anyway, I woke up at like, midnight, to the sound of him screaming in the street. He was trying to flag down cars to fight him.”
“Junior tried to stop him. They exploded into the living room, beating the crap out of each other. I stumbled out of the hallway to see what was happening; my little sister followed me. The noise had woken her as well.”
I was pacing faster now, tears burning my eyeballs. I kept going.
“They fell on the couch, cussing and clawing each other. They rolled over my brother and Momma screamed. Somehow, she snatched the baby out from under them and she shoved him in my arms. ‘Go hide under the desk in the office,’ she said. I took my sister and brother and went to the adjoining room.”
“But just before we went in I saw my ex-step-father pound her into the wall. He railed against her for trying to stop the fight. I shrieked and turned toward her. But she picked herself up and told us to ‘get!’ I stared at the crater her head made in the wall. I saw blood dripping down her face. We ran into the office and cowered under the desk like little ghosts.”
The words were flowing by their own volition now. I was running on autopilot, and I sounded as emotional as lead. “We huddled under there for a long time. Michael started to cry and I tried to shush him. Nothing worked. I started to sing to him and my sister. She was staring off all glassy eyed and it scared me. The only song I knew was ‘Silent Night.’ So I sang ‘Silent Night’ while the grown-ups fought in the living room.”
“I was on the second run-through when I heard a huge crash. The guys had fallen on the glass coffee table and it shattered everywhere. Mamma got very quiet and I saw Junior stumble past the office doorway. He was covered in blood; massive shards of glass clung to his clothes and jutted from his head. I was crying so hard that I could barely sing. My voice felt tight and small and the song became a prayer.”
“We stayed there until Momma came for us awhile later. She said she had wrapped Junior’s head with towels, but he kept bleeding through them. An ambulance came and took Junior to the hospital; my ex-step-father went to jail. We crawled out from under that desk like victims of some war. Momma hugged us tight and told us to give the table remnants a wide berth.”
“The glass from the table was embedded in the carpet and furniture. The brass frame was twisted beyond repair. Junior dropped the charges the next day and his dad came home. My ex-step-father almost killed his nineteen-year-old son and got away with it. Can you imagine? I should have called 911, but I was nine and didn’t think about it until years later. I’ve always felt guilty about that. I failed Junior that night.”
I looked at Robert for the first time. I was cold and empty inside. I gave him the hint of a smile. “You call my jokes false bravado; I call them survival. All of my stories are like this and …worse.” He took my hands in his and pulled me down on his lap. He stroked my hair the way parents pet their children.
We didn’t say anything for a long time. I’m not sure what you can say in the face of confessions like that. So we just sat there. He held me until the darkness faded and warmth returned to my limbs. He didn’t ask for anything, he just held me. I knew the questions would come, but they weren't important now.
I shifted in the safety of his arms and looked at him. He smiled slowly and moved his lips over mine. It was going to be okay, his mouth said, as he tasted me. His kiss welcomed me home. When the kiss changed—evolved into something more—he laid me on the sofa. I smiled a real smile. I laced my fingers with his and then I welcomed him, too.