Monday, March 29, 2010

63.) Waffles

Soundtrack Song - Pearl Jam, The Fixer

“I can’t believe it’s the ‘Superstar’s’ birthday, and this is all we’re doing,” Flower moaned, slumping in his seat. He held his arms out around him, gesturing to the surroundings. “Once a year, Véro gives me permission to have one wild night out like this, and we’re spending it here?”

I looked around us, not seeing what the big deal was. Sure, it wasn’t what I had been expecting either, but I wasn’t complaining about that. Talbot was friends with the owner of Bossa Nova, so he had the restaurant closed down for the night and invited tons of people to come down and celebrate with him. The drinks were flowing, and there was plenty of food, too. The music was pumping through the speakers, so we had to shout to hear each other. It wasn’t Blush, but the night still reeked of Talbot. I shrugged and mused, “Maybe he’s starting to settle down?” Crosby shot me a funny look. “Or at least, you know, isn’t so hyper and crazy anymore? He’s twenty-six now.”

“I think Heather and Kelsey threatened him,” Flower sighed. “They told him no strip clubs, or else they wouldn’t allow Gronk and Turbo to come out tonight. Those girls had to ruin it for the rest of us.”

Biting my tongue, I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. Marc-André Fleury was desperately in love with his girlfriend, and he never would have done anything to jeopardize their relationship. This was all talk, just to show the guys that he wasn’t as whipped as he seemed. Véro may have given her permission for Flower to have a wild night, but he’d never actually go through with it if he were given an opportunity.

Sidney shook his head and smiled as he took a sip from the glass in his hand. “See, that’s why I’m single.”

That time, I couldn’t hold back the snort. It erupted from me, and Flower chimed in with additional laughter as he said, “Yeah, uh huh. That’s it. It has nothing to do with the fact that any girl that comes within five feet of you freaks out and tries to rip the shirt off your back.” Sid blushed and Flower let the subject slide. “What about you, Tanger? Didn’t Jo have a problem with you coming out with us tonight?”

“Not at all,” I told them with a smile. It felt kind of good to have a girlfriend that was so relaxed about all this, especially after hearing the stories about the other guys’ girlfriends. I remembered exactly what happened this afternoon, after Jo had the brilliant idea to get a little creative with a can of Reddi-wip. We had showered to get rid of the sticky film all over our bodies, and then she once again insisted that I go out and have fun and forget about things for a night. “Jo practically pushed me out the door. In fact, she’ll probably be disappointed when she hears that this is all we did.”

My two teammates shook their heads; not in disbelief, but in amazement. But I was like Flower and wouldn’t take advantage of the chance to get a little crazy. That wasn’t me, but especially not when I had Jo waiting at home for me. I hoped she was doing okay back at the apartment. It was difficult to be an observer in everything she was dealing with, but I couldn’t be proactive and do anything to aid her. I tried to lay out a foundation for her to build off of, but she was the contractor. It was up to her.

And Jo was doing so good, and had been making great progress since she moved in with me in December. I’d never tell her that. Not again, anyway. The first time I did, she bitched at me for being patronizing. But it was true, even if she couldn’t see it herself. I was seeing all the itty bitty tiny baby steps. Jo would eventually see the journey when she could look back and see how far she had actually come.

The hardest part was the dream. It was painful to see her go through all that and not be able to do anything. How can I stop a dream? Well, I can’t. As much as I desperately wanted to, I couldn’t. I knew how hard it was to deal with dreams.

When I dreamt about Luc after his death, it was always the same one: he and I would be riding motorbikes or something, and I would somehow cut him off or cause his accident. It would be my fault, and he would tell me so with his last breath. The guilt had seeped into my waking life, too, and had haunted me all summer long. But eventually, the dream changed and the accident wasn’t my fault anymore. And then eventually, there was no accident; Luc just hopped on his bike and drove off into the proverbial sunset. After a long while, I stopped having that dream at all. Now when I dreamt about Luc, it was always positive and never had anything to do with his ultimate fate.

Jo was having enough trepidation about her own dream, though, so I didn’t want to confess all that to her about my experiences. She was scared about moving on, so I didn’t know how she’d take that information that she was in fact going forward. Just like how she yelled at me when I tried to be encouraging, sometimes it made her cry, too. Either way, I couldn’t win.

Once, during a very weak and vulnerable moment, she complained about how she felt like she couldn’t handle it all. She confessed to me that I was the glue holding her together, and that she would simply fall apart without me. But I kindly disagreed with her and said that she was her own glue. And that she had all the tools necessary to fix her broken heart. I was just helping her figure out where all the pieces went. She bawled when I said that, and I had felt horrible because I thought I had said something wrong. But then she kissed me, so I guess maybe I hadn’t.

Again, I checked the time on the watch on my left wrist. It was getting close to one in the morning, and I wanted to go home. I couldn’t because I was Max’s designated driver—at the rate things were going, he could want to stay out all night. He was surrounded by three waitresses, who were scantily clad in such a way that Hooters girls would look frumpy compared to them. They were fawning all over him, and he was clearly enjoying every second of it. No way was he ready to leave yet.

I sighed and shoved my hands back into my pocket, wondering if Jo were sleeping or if she were still forcing herself to stay awake. Contemplating on calling or sending a message, I decided against it. First of all, if she were in fact sleeping, I wouldn’t want to wake her. She was so exhausted, and she desperately needed whatever rest she could get. And second, Jo would be mad if she thought I was checking up on her, because she told me to just have fun and not to worry about her. I tried to tell her that I’d worry no matter what, and that it wasn’t really “worry” so much as it was concern.

I just hated that I couldn’t do anything to automatically make it better, or fix it altogether. When I first approached Jo, way back when, I did so because I thought I could help her. There was something about her that drew me to her, and I thought the reason for that pull between us was because I was destined to help her and save her from immediate danger. But I couldn’t fucking help her. I told her that I had experience with losing a loved one and that I could help her through it, but it was all a lie—I was a useless bystander as she worked through this on her own. I could hold her when she cried, or listen as she talked, or reassure her that eventually this would all be over, but that was it. I couldn’t speed up the process or further her progress or take away the pain.

“If you wanna go, just go,” Crosby encouraged. “Not like he won’t be able to find someone to take him home tonight in his sloppy, drunken glory.”

“Don’t you think he’ll be mad if I slip out?” I asked back.

Flower chuckled. “I’m willing to bet any of those girls—if not all of them—will be glad to tuck him in tonight.” I bobbed my head, still trying to decide. Would Jo be mad if I went home, if she found out I had called it an early night? “You want to get home to your girlfriend,” he continued. “Talbo will figure you’re getting laid. He won’t care.”

That made me smile, because he had a point. Crosby added, “Besides, it’s not technically his birthday any longer. We’ve got a game tomorrow—er, I mean today—so I’ll be heading out soon, too.”

“I hate to cut out early though, because he made such a big deal over this party. But it’s not even like he’s hanging out with any of us. Jo’s just kinda going through a rough time right now,” I explained, trying to rationalize my decision to them. No one knew about James or what she was going through, and I knew that Jo wanted to keep it that way, too. “Stress with going back to school, on top of everything else. I just want to make sure she’s doing okay.”

They nodded, not really caring. It wasn’t that they were inconsiderate; since they didn’t know how big of a deal this actually was, they couldn’t appreciate the circumstances for what they were. But I left, quickly and quietly, and although I hated trying to slip out without Talbot seeing, I couldn’t wait to get home.

Jo was right where I had left her: sitting on the floor with her back against the couch, the coffee table pulled up to her with her books and papers spread out over the surface. She had a half-eaten Sheetz MTO sub and an empty, large Styrofoam cup of Sheetz coffee on the table, too. And she was still dressed her pink sports bra and my pair of blue-and-white striped boxers. I thought she was crazy when she dressed in that after our shower, but she informed me that she would be less likely to doze off if she were cold.

But she was sleeping. At least, I thought so. She had her pencil in her hand, which was resting above the sheet of paper. Her head was dipped, her chin resting against her chest. When the door clicked shut behind me, though, her head snapped up. Jo rubbed her eyes as she looked over at me. “Hey. Back so soon?”

“Yeah, it was a lame night. And we play tomorrow, so I didn’t want to be out too late.”

“Mmm,” she responded, so tired that she couldn’t even form words. She shook her head and tried to wake up more.

“So, what do you say we get to bed?”

“No,” she sighed, reaching for her coffee cup only to find that there was nothing in it. Jo made a face as she set it down, obviously disappointed. “I want to finish this assignment.”

“Didn’t you already tell me that you’re weeks ahead of the syllabus?”

“Yeah.” Jo rolled her eyes. “But I don’t want to go to sleep yet.”

I didn’t say anything, because I knew whatever I said to her would evoke an argument. We’d been through this before, and to make it worse, she was so cranky when she was tired. We just had to get through this; then everything would be fine and we could get through anything. So instead of saying something that would only set her off, I began to clean up by throwing away her meatball sub and empty coffee cup.

“Hey, I paid for that!” she said belligerently, reluctantly pushing away the coffee table so she could stand. She walked over to me and peered into the garbage can, almost longingly at the sandwich. For a second, I thought she debated on fishing it out of the garbage. “I was gonna eat that, you know.”

I looked over at her and her red eyes, wondering why the hell she wasn’t in bed. I sighed, wondering if this was going to cause an argument. This was one of those things we had to get used to about each other. “The bread was all soggy, it was probably sitting around for hours. Gross.”

“Still, I woulda eaten it. That’s just being wasteful.” Jo pursed her lips and shrugged, obviously not happy but too tired to get into it with me.

Changing the subject, I yawned, “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.” I slung an arm around her bare waist and then dipped my head down to kiss her cheek, her neck, and then her shoulder. “Let’s get some sleep.”

“You smell like smoke. Where did you guys go?”

“Just to Bossa Nova, for food and drinks. It turned out to be a pretty boring night, actually.”

“I don’t believe it,” she replied with a smile, resting against me. I guided her toward the bedroom without a word; I knew that she hated feeling like I was taking care of her, but she needed that right now. She was hesitant to get some sleep, and although I fully understood why, she needed rest. “That’s all Max Talbot wanted to do for his birthday?”

“I couldn’t believe it, either.” I shrugged as I let go of her and she sat on the bed. Then I stripped out of my clothes and pulled on a pair of cotton pajama pants. Crawling into bed, I pulled her down with me and held onto her, thinking we could sleep now. “Apparently, Kels and Heather threatened Talbot to keep the night PG-13.” I kissed her cheek, and then her closed eyes. “Goodnight.”

“Kris, you still smell like smoke,” she mumbled, giving me a gentle push. “Go shower.”

“I already showered twice today,” I groaned. “Once after practice, and then with you. I’m tired. Let’s just sleep.”

“I can’t sleep if you smell like this. Please?”

I was frustrated, but I was willing to appease her if it meant she’d sleep. Very quickly, I jumped in the shower, hoping to wash the scent off me. Just because I couldn’t smell it didn’t mean it wasn’t there; after all, I’d spent the night in the restaurant so I was probably just used to it by now. Then I quickly dressed back into my cotton pants and headed back into my bedroom, where Jo had turned on the lamp and was flipping through one of her textbooks, desperately trying to stay awake.

“No, no, no. Lights off.” I crawled into bed beside her, pushed the book closed, and reached over her to turn the lamp off. Thinking if I made this seem about me, she wouldn’t be able to argue that I was doing this for her. “Time for sleep. I’m showered, just like you wanted, and I’m exhausted.”

“I don’t want to fall asleep yet. Tell me about your night.”

“Jo...” I said, not sure how to convince her that she needed to get some rest. I’d tried to be comforting, understanding, and reassuring, and then I’d tried tough love, and then I’d tried a bit of reverse psychology, too. It wasn’t working. So I tried honesty. “I know you’re afraid of your dream—”

“I’m more scared about how it’s gonna change,” she confessed quietly. I opened my eyes and looked down at her, barely able to faintly make out the lines of her face and the tear that streaked from her pinched-shut eyes. “If I didn’t even make it into the house, then, what happens now? As much as that dream bothers me, I don’t want to not dream it. The longer I can put off dreaming it, the longer I’ll have before it changes.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic. It made sense—especially to her tired brain. But she needed a new approach. “I know that you don’t wanna let James go, but you aren’t. This is a good thing, Jo. If you can dream about him without it hurting, then you can think about him without it hurting. I promise. And you can’t deprive yourself of sleep. That doesn’t help the situation.”

It took her a few seconds to respond. “Is this what it was like for you?”

I licked my lips and tried to think of the best way to talk about it. Pulling her in closer against me, I advised, “Yeah. The same bad dream, over and over. It is scary, when it changes, but hindsight is twenty-twenty. It might suck now, but it’ll be okay. Don’t be scared.”

“You’re wet,” she breathed, turning her head so her cheek was against my chest. I watched as her eyes fluttered, like she wanted to open them but physically could not. “I’m so tired.”

“Just sleep, and I promise, it’ll be okay.” I knew I shouldn’t make that type of guarantee, but if my wanting her to have a good, uneventful night was enough to make it so, it would have. Usually, I tried to absorb any negative vibes, even if it seemed like a stupid and impossible idea. But tonight, I tried to send out good vibes to her as I closed my eyes and followed her into dreamland. I knew that if she was going to have her nightmare, I would need my rest, too, because I’d be up with her.

It was impossible to sleep through when she had an episode. She thrashed around and screamed, and I could almost feel a change in the room around us. It was scary, and I thought about how my mother would come into my room at night when I was having my nightmares. I had a new appreciation for her and all she did for me.

The sun was shining when I woke up. Jo had obviously slept through the entire night. In fact, she was still sleeping, and she hadn’t even moved at all because we were both in the same position we’d started out in. I figured that she had probably been so exhausted that her body forced itself to sleep and her mind let her have the peace.

I decided to get up and cook breakfast for us. When Jo slept through the night, we had good days together. It was like old times, the way things were supposed to be. The way things were going to be once we finally got through this. So I left Jo in bed and headed for the kitchen, where I pulled the box of Eggo frozen waffles out of the freezer. I slipped a few into the toaster and pressed the lever, but it didn’t work. With a yawn, I tried again, unsure why it wasn’t working.

Suddenly, Jo was behind me. She reached behind the toaster and plugged it in. That would explain why it wasn’t working. I turned to face her and say good morning, but I stopped myself when I saw her face was red with shame. She hated that she felt the need to unplug things, because she was afraid of a fire. I had tried telling her that I understood, but she hated hearing that. There were a lot of things she wasn’t happy about with her life right now.

Instead of trying to say something, I reached for the hand on the counter that had just plugged in the toaster. I brought it up to my lips and kissed the back of it, her fingers, her palm, all without a word. When I let go, she wrapped her arms around my middle and stepped behind me, holding onto me. Still focused on making breakfast, I moved about the kitchen to pull some eggs out of the fridge. Jo all while held on and moved behind me, which made me chuckle.

I pulled a bowl down from the cupboard to crack the eggs in, but Jo’s hands began to move. They went across my stomach, up my chest, and back down again. Then I felt her lips on my back, kissing a spot by my shoulder blade. She sucked my flesh into her mouth and bit down a little harder than I expected her to. I gasped both in pleasure and pain. Her hands kept moving all the while, one of them leaving my stomach and sliding up into my hair. Her fingers threaded through it and lightly scratched my scalp.

There was a loud knock on the door, and I was about to grab onto Jo and tell her to ignore it; however, she was already moving away from me. She unbolted the door and cracked it open, and then upon spying the visitor, closed the door and unchained it. When she opened the door again, she greeted, “Max. This is a pleasant surprise.”

“Tanger up?” he answered, stepping into the apartment.

“Geez, nice to see you, too. Yeah, he’s in the kitchen.” She pointed toward me and turned to head further into the living room or back into the bedroom—hopefully to put clothes on.

Talbot spied me and raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement, but something distracted him from talking to me. “Nice tat.”

“Oh, thanks,” she mumbled, straightening up the papers and homework assignments on the table.

“I’ve got a few myself. Not a hockey stick, though. Did you play, or what?”

I stopped making so much noise, so I could hear what she was going to say. I felt like I was in the wild, trying to observe an animal in its natural habit as I waited to see how she was going to answer Talbot’s question. “No, I didn’t. But my brother did.”

“He doesn’t anymore? Why did he stop?”

Jo never talked about her brother to anyone who didn’t already know him; it had been a really big deal to her that she had talked about him to me. And she especially did not talk about his death unless she had to. I was really curious to hear how she was going to respond to him now. I took the waffles out of the toaster quietly so I could listen in as she replied, “He, uh, died.”

For a second, Max didn’t say anything. I turned and watched him nod and simply say, “I’m sorry.”

Her lips curled into a slight, sad smile. “Yeah, me too.” Then Jo left for the bedroom, and Talbot headed over toward me.

“I didn’t know that,” he noted, grabbing a waffle from the plate and biting into it.

“Huh?” I asked, not sure what he was talking about.

“Jo had a brother. I didn’t know that. Did you?”

I wanted to laugh at Max’s obliviousness. Sure, Jo liked it better that no one knew, but it was something that she was unable to hide from me from the get-go. It was like the part of me that had lost someone had instinctively seen that in her, too. It was what drew us together through everything. “Yeah, I knew.”

“Oh,” he shrugged, scarfing down the rest of the waffle.

Excusing myself, I followed Jo into the bedroom because I needed to see how she was holding up. As far as I knew, this was the first time she’d ever talked about James to someone else who didn’t used to know him. Besides me. This could be a very big moment for her. She had pulled on a pair of jeans and was in the process of tugging a shirt on. When her head appeared, I was utterly relieved to see that she wasn’t crying or upset.

“So what did Max want?” she asked, sitting down on the mattress to slip on her tennis shoes.

“Dunno. I didn’t find out yet.”

“So he’s probably out there, unsupervised, eating my breakfast?” she cracked.

I was torn between saying something about how happy I was, that she was so calm and okay about what she had just talked about, and not saying anything at all because she probably wouldn’t like knowing that she had just openly talked about James like that. It was a touchy situation, but I was so proud of her.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Jo asked, eying me warily.

“Nothing,” I lied. “So, you’ve got class today?”

“Yeah. Calc. I just need to grab my stuff.”

Together, we walked back into the living room. Jo grabbed her bag and groaned, complaining that it was ripped and that she needed a new one. I was about to ask her what happened when Talbot commandeered the conversation. “So, Tanger, the reason I’m here. Did you buy your plane ticket home yet over the Olympic break?”

I glanced at Jo and then back at my teammate. “No, I haven’t.”

“Good! Because I chartered a flight to Montreal. We can just go together, eh?”

“Uh, actually, I’m not, um, going home.”

“What?!” Jo and Max simultaneously hollered.

“Are you going on vacation instead?” Max questioned further.

“But I thought you were going home?” my girlfriend badgered. “To see your mom. You’re always saying that you wish you could spend more time with your family.” She referenced Luc’s birthday, adding quietly, “And plus, the sixteenth. You told me, like, two weeks ago that you were so excited you could go back with everyone, since the season allowed it this year.”

Her sad eyes searched mine desperately for the answer. I had told her all that, but I never told her that I had changed my mind. Yes, I had originally planned to go home to Montreal to see my mother and then to go visit Luc’s grave in New Brunswick with his family and Charlene. Since his death, I’d always been too tied up because of the hockey schedule that I couldn’t go back with everyone on the big days, like his birthday or deathday. But I felt like Jo was in such a fragile place that I couldn’t just leave her here, alone, for a week and a half. She needed me here with her.

“Well, Jo,” I started, reaching for her hand.

“Kristopher Allen Letang!” she hollered, stomping her foot as she grabbed her calc book and notebook. Her eyes were flashing with anger because she read my mind. “I know exactly what you’re thinking, and fuck that stupid excuse. You are going, even if I have to drag you up there myself!”

“Then it’s a par-tay!” Talbot interjected, not caring at all that we were in the middle of a discussion that didn’t concern him. “I say, the more, the merrier!”

“Aren’t you going to Mexico?” I asked him, never glancing at him.

“Well, I’m going home first, see the fam, go out for a night, then hola, México! But it’ll be a lot more fun to take Jo out in Montreal, don’t you think?”

“But she has class,” I said. “Jo doesn’t have a break until March.”

She folded her arms in front of her, holding her books against her chest. “You’re not staying here on account of me, Kris. No fucking way.”

Talbot just wouldn’t stay out of this. “So what if she misses a few classes? It’s a chartered flight, we can bring anyone along. Why not?”

Jo raised her eyebrow defiantly, waiting for me to find something wrong with that compromise. And a compromise it would be—I wouldn’t be leaving her alone, and I’d still get to go to Luc’s grave on his birthday. “If your professors won’t mind...” I shrugged. “I won’t be held responsible for you slacking in your classes.”

Her face softened. She tugged on my arm and pulled me into the kitchen, even though the apartment was open and Talbo could still hear us. “I’m not going to tag along just because it’ll make you feel better, that I’m not alone. I would love to be there for you to help you through it, but only if you want me there. You were here for James’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death, and if you needed me to do the same for you, I would in a heartbeat. But if you’d rather just go with Charlene and Suzanne—”

I put my hands on her shoulders, and then I slid them down to her arms and rubbed circles with my thumbs through the fabric. I hadn’t thought about this possibility, about taking her home with me this time. The idea never crossed my mind. But the more I mulled it over, the more I liked it. She could see the side of me that she only heard me talk about. Maybe it would help her. “I would like it if you came. It would be a lot of fun for me to take you home. We could fly out right after the game, go out on the town for Valentine’s Day, meet my family and friends, and Charlene, and come with us. What do you think, Jo? Because I think I’d like it. I think this would be a great opportunity for us, so I want you to come.”

She nibbled her lip, examining my face to make sure that this was, in fact, what I really wanted; she must have found whatever it was she was looking form. “Okay, Kris, I’ll come up with you.”

“Great,” I said quietly, leaning in to kiss her cheek.

Max interrupted us again. “Woo hoo, par-tay!”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

62.) Wake Up Tonight

I hope that you guys don't mind posts that are less frequent, but longer. This is actually kind of like a two-in-one deal; I had to break it up because it's so long. There was just so much to get through in this particular post. I hope you are all still enjoying this. Y'all are awesome ladies.

Soundtrack Song - Smashing Pumpkins, Tonight, Tonight

I shoved my notebook into my backpack as I headed for the door of the classroom, flipping through my returned exam to see what I had missed. Eighty-nine percent wasn’t bad, I suppose, but I had really thought that I’d nailed this sucker. After all, this was going to be my field—I should be able to get an A on a fucking Physics I test.

The formulas were right, the theory was correct, but my math was wrong. One twenty-five divided by twenty-five was five, not six. Leave it to me to screw up simple division. My professor had even taken the time to write that I needed to be more careful with my math, that there was no reason I shouldn’t have aced this. Just another thing that was going wrong for me today: first I slept in because I had barely slept the night before, then I couldn’t get a nearby parking spot so I had to walk what felt like five frickin’ miles to class, which made me late so I interrupted the lecture and looked like a total douche in front of a roomful of people, and then a mere B on my exam which I was sure I killed.

Grunting with frustration, I slung my backpack around to my front to slip the exam in the section with my books as I made my way through the hall and toward the exit. I was watching what I was doing with the test in my hand and not looking where I was going—and definitely not paying attention to whatever else I was doing. I hip-checked the bar on the door to open it; the door hit the wall with a thud and quickly rebounded, catching the strap of my bag. But I of course didn’t notice, so I kept walking. It was like I was yanked backward at full force, and I fell right on my back like the floor was pulled out from under me.

“Oh, fuck,” I groaned, admiring my great view of the ceiling. Seriously, what else wanted to go wrong today?

“You okay? That was a pretty nasty spill.”

“Ugh, yeah, I’m fine. Just got attacked by the stupid door,” I mumbled to the sickeningly polite stranger, ignoring his proffered hand and pushing myself off the floor. I guess I shouldn’t have been so rude to him, but the fact that he came over to check on me, sprawled on my ass on the floor, served to highlight the drama of my fall. It was the cherry on my sundae of my sucky day. “Not like this is a life-or-death situation here.”

“Sorry, I’m a first responder. It’s a habit.” He smiled at me, a lively sparkle in his eyes. They looked familiar. “Do I know you?”

It took me a few seconds to remember his name. “Dave.”

“Yeah. So, I do know you?”

“Well, not really. It’s just, um, I was in a motorcycle accident a few months ago....”

“I remember you. Shit, I forget your name, but I totally remember. You look different, so I didn’t recognize you. I went back to the hospital when my shift ended, but they told me that you had already checked out.”

“You came back?” I asked in disbelief. I picked up my bag to throw it over my shoulder again, only to have the bottom fall out. “Fuck! I must have ripped my backpack when it snagged.”

Dave bent down to scoop up my books for me. “I’ve never seen someone get into a fight with a door before.”

“Yeah,” I scoffed. “And the door won.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” he chuckled, setting the books in my arms, “it’s a pretty big door.”

I snorted. “Not really finding any consolation in that. But, uh, thanks for helping with my books.” Then I started for the door, ready to dump my books into my car and go home and crawl into bed for the rest of the day.

He followed me, just a step or two behind. “Not a problem,” he answered. “And yeah, I came back. I always like to check in on my favorite patients. I’ve never seen anyone keep their sense of humor after an accident like that. And then the whole jacket thing, so yeah, you really kinda stuck out.”

I bit the inside of my cheek as I headed out into the cool February air. James’s jacket was still a contentious, sore subject for me. I had come to terms with a lot of things over the past couple of months, but I still resented that the doctors had cut off the jacket without my permission. And now it was stitched back together, since Tubby’s Christmas present to me was to get it “fixed,” but it wasn’t fixed at all. It was currently tucked away in a dark corner of Kris’s closet, a bitter reminder of everything I’d lost and screwed up. “Well, I’m glad I could be so memorable,” I mumbled, juggling my books so I could fish my keys out of my pocket.

“So, I guess I’ll see you around campus sometime? It’s my last semester. I’m pre-med,” he explained. I nodded, wanting to be polite. He had, after all, come to my rescue. Sure, maybe it was his job, but he had been nice about it even when I had been difficult. Dave began taking a few backward steps away from me, presumably toward his own car. “I’m glad you’re okay. Jo,” he added, the light bulb flashing on over his head as he finally remembered my name.

Once again I nodded at him, saying a wordless goodbye. I dumped my shit into my car and drove home, taking a long detour to pass by my old house. It was something that I had to do, even if it was irrational. I was so terrified that the house would go up in flames: it haunted my waking thoughts and my dreams, which often was what kept me up at night. I didn’t have to stop the car; I only had to drive by and make sure it was still there, standing firm, before I could finish the journey to my new home, to Kris.

Living together with him had been quite an adjustment. It’s one thing to occasionally spend time at each other’s place or stay over a night or two during the week—but full-on living with another person, every day, in such a small and confined space like an apartment is a whole nother ball of wax. His apartment, which had seemed so big for just him and bare without many personal effects, was now small and cramped with both of us staying there and me intruding in on his space and time.

Not to mention, he didn’t deserve what I was doing to him. I know that Kris just wanted to help me. There was something he said to me when we were in James’s room, about how Luc would have wanted it. I wasn’t sure if that were true, because I didn’t know Luc; but I did know Kris. And if Kris believed that Luc would have wanted it, then I knew that that meant that Kris had to do it. It was just like how I did certain things because I thought James would like it or approve. And because obliging meant making Kris happy, I was more than willing to oblige.

I didn’t tell Kris this, but it wasn’t Luc helping at all; it was Kris’s feeling like what he went through with Luc’s death that was helping. He was putting his experience to good use, and that made him feel like he went through it for a reason—when in reality, he had a reason to use his experience. There was a difference. I decided not to tell him that, though. Not when he found solace in that theory. His “cause and effect” rationale was skewed. If Luc hadn’t’ve died, he wouldn’t have the experience or the need to help out someone who had gone through something similar. Just like if James wouldn’t’ve died, he never would have needed to approach me and offer help. He and I wouldn’t have the common thread of death to knot us together.

It didn’t seem fair that I had to go through something so devastating in order to meet someone who made me so completely happy, and I know that it wasn’t fair that Kris had to lose Luc. If I had the ability to change the past, I would have saved Luc and thereby saved Kris from that brand of pain—even though that meant that he wouldn’t have the experience or the need to accost me way back when. Because I wanted what was best for him more than for myself.

Which was why I was trying so hard to be the kind of person he was worthy of; I wanted to be strong and whole for him, because he deserved a girlfriend who could take care of herself and not rely so much on him for everything. It was a tough line to walk. How could I firmly stand on my own two feet without pushing him away? How could I learn to lean on him without fully needing him for his support?

This whole tango with Kris was difficult and frustrating, because as we danced we trampled on each other’s feet. I had to trust him to lead me in the right direction, but I couldn’t depend on him for all the answers—because I had to figure some things out for myself. I couldn’t just adopt his philosophy; I needed to discover and forge my own. And, likewise, Kris had to trust that I would follow the path he laid out for me without grabbing my hand and pulling me behind him.

He was so good about it all, patient, caring, and helpful. I would have been lost without him, and it sucked that his helping me also meant bringing the frustration of putting up with me on himself. Kris certainly didn’t need the added task of being there for me when I cried so hard that I made myself throw up. Or the mood swings, when I’d yell at him one minute and pounce on him and drag him to bed the next. Not that he necessarily minded the latter. But Kris didn’t deserve to be woken up on a nightly basis when I woke up from the horrific dreams that started after leaving home.

The nightmares were always the same: they started out like happy, fun times with James. Sometimes they were actual memories, like when we’d be outside playing street hockey and he was taking shots on me in net. And then the chronology would get all messed up and James would talk about Kris. It was always some tiny little statement that would catch me off guard, like “Ask Tanger when he gets back from his game against Washington.” And then suddenly, he’d be gone, disappearing somewhere in our house, and then the place would be engulfed in flames. I’d try to run after him to warn or save him, even though it meant I was risking a lot and endangering myself. Then Kristopher Letang would rush in his firefighter costume and whisk me away to safety—or more like pull me away kicking and screaming, because James’s fate was sealed and there was nothing either of us could do to change it.

And when I was jolted awake from that nightmare, Kris was always there, holding me and trying to calm me down. The dreams always felt so real, so overwhelmingly and horrifically real, and it would take a good portion of the night for me to settle down enough to try and sleep again. It wasn’t every night that it would happen, but it was often enough that it made me afraid to sleep, especially on the nights when Kris was away on a road trip.

I hated this: I hated being so dependent on him when he was trying to make me stronger, and I hated most of all doing this to him. It was wearing on him, too, I could tell—he didn’t want to show me, but it had to be frustrating to him. No way one person, even someone with the unyielding patience of Kris Letang, could not have a breaking point while dealing with this stuff. But I also knew that I couldn’t possibly do it without him. So I silently but consciously promised myself that I would get better, for him, so he could reap the rewards of his hard work and I could be everything he’d possibly need.

And in the meantime, I would have done anything for him. I would have eviscerated myself to give him a kidney, if he needed one. I would have built and launched a rocket to the heavens to pull down a star, if he asked for just that. I mean anything. He was my light at the end of the tunnel, my carrot, and part of me selfishly wanted him to need me, too. Be a part of him as much as he was a part of me. I wanted to reciprocate so badly, and yet, I didn’t know how or if I even could.

I wanted to be there for him, in any capacity he needed me to be. I wanted to be with him to help him, just like he had been there and was currently being there for me. It’s not that Kris thought he was better than me and therefore didn’t want to take anything from me; it was simply that I had nothing to offer him. He didn’t need me that way. Kris was strong and tough and put together, and even though I was sure he didn’t mean to, the fact that he didn’t need me made me feel useless and worthless. I couldn’t plug up his holes, because he had no holes. I was Swiss cheese, and he was a solid block of cheddar. Even as Luc’s birthday loomed in the near future, he was calm and cool as cucumber.

When I got home, I dropped all my books on the coffee table and tossed my useless backpack in the corner. Kris was watching TV on the couch, not really paying a whole lot of attention to me as I moved next to him. I sat beside him but fell onto my side, settling my torso in his lap as I curled into a ball.

“Hey. Bad day?” he asked softly, his hand automatically reaching under my shirt to soothingly rub circles along my spine.

I mumbled in the affirmative and then closed my eyes. Not only was I exhausted and sleep-deprived, but Kris’s even, melodic voice, the steady, constant pressure of his massaging hand, and the warmness of his body seeping into mine had a soporific effect on me. His other hand let go of the remote and brushed the hair off of my face, and that was it: I was done for, fast asleep in seconds.



Soundtrack Song - Arcade Fire, Wake Up

“Stop being so fuckin’ retarded,” he laughs, pushing my arm and making me fall to my side in the cool grass. But like a Weeble, I wobble and regain my upright posture, giving him a shove back with my momentum.

“I’m not a retard. There’s nothing wrong with wishing on a shooting star, it’s just a silly little thing. But you’re no better.... You made a wish on your birthday candles. And you wish on pucks! ‘If I make this shot, Alyssa Fulton will ask me out.’ Now that’s lame,” I mock him.

“Fine, if it’s so silly, then tell me what you wished for.” He looks at me with a cocky eyebrow raised. “If you don’t believe it, you’ll have no problem telling me.”

“No, it’s stupid....”

“You don’t wanna tell me, because you’re afraid to jinx it!”

“Ugh,” I moan, pulling my knees to my chest and ripping out a handful of grass. I let go of the blades and let them flutter away in the gentle breeze before I offer my secret knowledge with a quick breath, hoping that he won’t hear it and so therefore he won’t make fun of me. “You’re gonna think it’s stupid, but I wished that I’d get my acceptance letter to CMU.”

“That is fuckin’ stupid. Like, duh, of course you’re getting in.” He lowers his voice for a second to be serious as he firmly states, “You’re brilliant, Jo-Jo. They’ll be lucky to have you as a student.” And just as quickly as he had switched modes, he’s back to his joking self. “So stop being so fuckin’ retarded!”

I close my hand into a fist and punch him. Either it truly doesn’t hurt him or he masks the sting. “You’re so dumb. How can I be brilliant and retarded at the same time?”

He laughs and pushes off the grass in our backyard to stand and stretch. “Because you’re the smartest girl I know. You got all the brains, and I got all the dashing good looks.” He poses and smiles. In a cartoon, this is where his teeth would sparkle. “And as smart as you are, sometimes, you miss the most obvious things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, let’s see... it starts with a ‘K’ and ends with a ‘ristopher,’” he laughs. I want to ask him what he meant by that, but he trots away from me and into the house.

The sinking feeling begins to set in. My heart starts to race while simultaneously making my chest feel empty. It’s like I’m floating in thin air, because my body can’t feel the surroundings anymore. Like gravity shuts off completely. I know what’s coming, and I’m powerless to stop it. I start to scream, “No, no, no. James, don’t go! Come back!”

He disappears into the house, not listening to me, so I rush after him. I’ve gotta save him; he doesn’t know. He didn’t see the smoke billowing out of the windows and the flames licking the white siding of the house. There’s no way he’d so nonchalantly put himself in danger. I’ve gotta save him, so I run onto the deck to find him before it’s too late.

But I don’t even make it through the back door before Kris is there, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce hug as he guides me off the back porch and into the yard. I claw at him desperately to break free, fighting against the stiff, yellow fabric of his coat as I try to get out of his hold. He’s too strong for me to get loose. “No, Kris. Let me go! I have to go get him! He doesn’t know it’s on fire!” The grass is littered with other firefighters, but no one’s dousing the flames or donning the gear to go rescue him.

“It’s too late, Jo. There’s nothing you can do.” His fireman’s hat falls to the ground as we struggle.

I’m giving it my all, doing whatever I need to so I can save him from certain death. “It’s not too late. I’ve gotta get him outta there!” I look around me in disbelief. I can’t believe that they’re all just standing around and watching, never lifting a finger to help. “No one’s doing anything! James is in there!”

“It’s okay, Jo. Wake up.”


“Wake up, Jo. It’s a dream. It’s just a dream...” Kris cooed in real life as I was rudely dropped into consciousness. He was holding onto me roughly as I thrashed around, just like in my dream.

“Oh, God. I didn’t even make it inside this time,” I cried, collapsing against him. His strong arms enveloped me as I wept like a baby, and he cradled and rocked me like an infant. I felt so incompetent and helpless.

His hand brushed over my hair. “Shh.... You’re all right. It’s okay.”

After my big move and these dreams started, when I had finally confessed to Kris that this was a reoccurring nightmare after he had been woken up by my screams several times, he bought me a book, The Complete Dream Book: Discover What Your Dreams Reveal about You and Your Life. I wasn’t sure I believed this mumbo jumbo, but once he had convinced me to crack it open and read, saying that maybe it would help, I couldn’t argue with the interpretation. But worse, I knew what not making it inside meant.

I was letting go of James.

I guess I should have been relieved, but I wasn’t. I had sorted through a lot of emotional shit over the past two months, ever since I had moved in with Kris; I had discarded a lot of my baggage, but there was a still a suitcase I wasn’t sure if I wanted to let go of. James was dead and I had come to grips with that. I knew that he wouldn’t want me to dwell in my sadness and not pursue my dreams just because he couldn’t be here to encourage me or share it with me. And I knew that someday, I would do something great and I would dedicate it to him. No, I wasn’t sure what that great thing would be yet, but it would be worthy of him somehow.

But I still didn’t know with what attitude I should reflect on the past. I didn’t want to be accepting of James’s death. It never should have happened, and I would argue with anyone who said that God needed him or that these things always happen for some higher reason. Those excuses were bullshit. But I also knew that arguing was pointless, because nothing would ever bring him back. And if I couldn’t bring him back, I didn’t want to let him go completely.

But that dream.... It was terrifying. Not only did it disturb my sleep and make me afraid to even go to bed at night, but it also fueled this irrational fear of fire in my waking life, too. It made me drive by my old home every time I left the house, no matter which direction I had to go. Every day, I patrolled Kris’s apartment to make sure everything was plugged in properly or that what appliances could be shut off were in fact off. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting and draining.

Kris, however, took it all in stride. He never wavered, no matter what. There was so much adrenaline coursing through my body from the nightmare that I couldn’t stand to be held, coddled, or constrained. Somehow, it’s like he knew that and let go. I slid off him and lay down beside him on the couch, but I did keep my legs thrown over his in an effort to remain close to him. We were quiet; there wasn’t much to be said at this point.

He reached into his pocket for his phone and began to text someone. “Who’re you talking to?” I asked, my voice raw with emotion.

“Talbot. I’m not going tonight.”

“No, Kris! It’s his birthday. He planned this whole extravagant boys’ night out on the town. You told him you’d go, and you can’t back out. Especially at the last minute.”

Shrugging, he answered, “He’ll understand, Jo. You need me here.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and huffed. “You can’t just cancel on him like that, though. Not on account of me. I’ll be fine,” I assured him. “I’ll make coffee, turn on the Weather Channel, and do some homework.” I hoped that would convince him to go; it was my usual routine anymore. Coffee to keep me awake and lucid. The Weather Channel for the soothing music. And the mental distraction of schoolwork. Science and math and I had a general understanding with each other. There was always one right answer. There were an infinite amount of wrong ones, but that one correct answer was like the Holy Grail.

It didn’t matter how or why one answer was right and every other one was wrong; there was a clear division between right versus wrong, success versus failure, and truth versus bullshit. It was easy to trust physics and calculus in a confusing, fucked up world.

“Are you sure?” he asked quietly, examining my face for the answer.

“Yeah, Kris. Go.”

He fidgeted, turning to face me at a better angle. “You’re doing so good. I don’t wanna leave you here alone if you’re still upset....”

I pursed my lips, trying to blink back impending tears. When I spoke, I didn’t do so with a bitter tone. I was merely trying to be as open and as honest as possible. “I’m just so sick of this, ya know? I hate that you feel like you can’t leave me or that you have to be here. Your life doesn’t stop because of my bad dream.” As I wiped my cheeks with the backs of my hands, I silently cursed this Catch-22. If I weren’t so tired, I would be able to handle the emotional weight of that damn dream, but getting some rest meant sleeping and risking a confrontation with that same dream.

He placed his hand on my calf, speaking in his calm, soothing manner with a slight smirk on his face. He had learned to use humor to diffuse my foul moods, knowing full well that I could never resist a laugh. “And, you know, my life doesn’t stop if I don’t go out with Talbot tonight. He’s probably just gonna get me into trouble. I have no idea what he’s planned for his big celebration, so it probably includes a strip club.”

“Better make sure you leave your wallet at home with me tonight then,” I returned, trying my hardest to smile. “Because you are going. And you will have fun, no matter where he takes you or what he makes you do.”

“Yes, ma’am. I swear I’ve got the only girlfriend in the world who would encourage her boyfriend to go do... whatever it is Talbot’s going to make me do.” He grabbed both my legs and yanked. I slid fully on my back on the couch cushions and giggled, and he leaned over me with that sexy, lopsided grin of his. “You’re either really trusting or very naïve.”

“Well, I guess I’m not your ‘typical’ girlfriend. But I know that you’ll be on your best behavior, just like always. Besides, Max knows I’ll come after him if he goes too far.” Kris looked down at me for a moment, his smile thinning into a straight line. It annoyed me, because I knew exactly what he was thinking. “Don’t you dare fucking ask me one more time if it’s okay. I swear to God I’ll snap.”

“Maybe he’ll let you come, too. Really, he thinks of you like one of the guys.”

“Wow, just what a girl wants to hear,” I thought out loud, scrunching up my face. It was probably true. But I definitely did not want to go out with them if it meant I’d be the only girl there for a boys’ night out. It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with the guys, because I did—sometimes better than Kris did. But I wasn’t in the mood for that.

“It’s a compliment, I think, where he’s concerned. And I wouldn’t want him to think of you like that anyway. But I mean, then you wouldn’t have to be alone tonight.”

“I’ll be fine,” I growled through my teeth.

“I’m sorry. It’s just, I had dreams like that, all summer after Luc passed. They didn’t stop until the season started up again. I feel bad enough when I have to be gone for the away games, so I don’t want to skip out when I can be here.”

“But I don’t need you here,” I said. It was a half-truth. I did kind of need him, but I was trying to convince myself that I didn’t. “So I don’t want you to feel this obligation just to be here. I already demand too much from you.”

“I don’t mind it though,” he firmly stated, holding himself up by resting his hands on either side of me. “I like doing whatever I can for you. This is all a mental thing. I can’t touch it. I can’t physically fix something or do whatever needs to be done. It makes me feel useful, like I can do something to help you. I’m the man, I should be able to.... Ugh.”

I felt bad for him. He was trying so hard to be what I needed, and it was misery for him because there was nothing for him to do. It was all in my head, and he couldn’t reach into my brain and take out the bad things. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. So I did the only thing I knew that I could do to try and make it up to him. I slid my hands up his arms and under his shirt sleeves, squeezing his large biceps. Then I tangled my legs with his, loving that I could do this without that damn walking cast. “I can think of a good way to make you feel like a man.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

61.) Black Hole Heart

Sometimes, apparently, I think it's worse than what it is. But then sometimes, I think I strike gold.

Soundtrack Song - Metric, Help I'm Alive

“Come in with me?” she asked quietly, casting a quick glance in my direction like she was afraid that I would say no.

“Sure,” I replied, shutting off the engine and walking with her as she hobbled to the front door.

Her hand was shaking as she fumbled with her keys and unlocked the front door. She reached to her right and flicked on the lights. “Home sweet home,” her voice wobbled. As she stepped into the house and looked around, it looked like Jo expected the walls to cave in and collapse on her, trapping and burying her here.

It was clear that she didn’t want to be here. I was just supposed to help her gather some of her things so we could go back to my place, because she said she didn’t have anything she’d need to spend another night there. It was understood that Jo would be spending the night indefinitely without having to give me a flat-out answer. The words she used were “staying with me” rather than “moving in.” That bothered me a little, and yet it didn’t; I was happy that she’d be sleeping in my bed nightly even if it wasn’t an official move-in. After all, she’d basically told me that she wanted to say yes, but something was holding her back from that. I didn’t know what it was, but I didn’t think she knew it either.

“Um, can you grab Ice Road Truckers for me? It’s still in the DVD player. I’m gonna go grab some clothes.”

I nodded at her and headed into the living room as she took the stairs. Just from looking around the place, I could tell that no one had been here in days. There was a thin layer of dust on everything. The place just had a feeling of coldness and emptiness. It looked lived in, with the pictures in frames on the shelves and the afghan thrown over the back of the couch, but it didn’t have that feel anymore.

When I didn’t hear footsteps or movement on the floor above me, I followed Jo. I headed for her bedroom, which was the last door down the hall on the left, but a door on the right is what caught my attention. I had never really noticed it before, because it was always closed. But now it was slightly ajar. Pushing the door open even more, I was surprised by the stale air.

The walls were painted blue, with a Grand Theft Auto poster, pictures of Lindsey Lohan, and Penguins paraphernalia splayed over them. It was old Penguins stuff from the ’06-’07 season, which I began on the NHL roster. I was in that one picture. Weird. There were some tarnished trophies on the dresser, as well as a TV and an outdated video game system. Hockey sticks in the corner, empty CD cases strewn about the floor, and even a few back issues of Maxim by the bed. The place was the epitome of a teenage boy’s room—complete with bottle of lotion on the night stand.

It’s kind of funny, because I never thought about his room. I knew Jo had grown up here, and obviously James had too, but I never wondered about what it would be like. I think that what a person does with a room of a dead loved one says a lot about how they deal with the pain. You can either close the door and lock it up, never touching it again and pretending like it’s not there or nothing’s changed; or you can tear down the walls and convert it into a game room, using the fun atmosphere as a pretense of acceptance. The fact that this room looked exactly the same as I’m sure it always had been was revealing.

Jo was stretched out on the bed, her feet by the pillows and her head hanging off the foot of the bed, looking toward the dresser. I didn’t want to step in here and interrupt her thoughts, but I didn’t have to. She spoke up before I could retreat, “Can you believe this is the first time I’ve been in here, since...?”

I didn’t say anything. This wasn’t something I had thought of. It was best if I just let her talk.

She continued, “He’d kill me if he knew I was in here, without him. We were really close, but he hated anyone being in his room without his permission. He called it his ‘man cave.’”

I chuckled, leaning against the doorframe and pushing my hands into my pockets. I still didn’t want to step beyond the threshold. This was a sacred place, and I was an intruder. But I threw in my two cents, “Yeah, I was the same way.”

“I just wanted to obey his wishes, you know, by staying out.” Her lips trembled and her jaw ticked. “And as I was walking by to get to my room just now, I was thinking that, if I leave, I wouldn’t be able to come in here. Which is stupid because when I was living here, I didn’t come in here. Fucking hell, I’m so confused.” She looked over at me. “And did you see the place? My dad wasn’t here, he hasn’t been here the whole time. I mean, he probably left after I did and never came back. If I’m not here, this place is going to be empty.”

“So?”

She shrugged awkwardly in her supine position. “I don’t know how I feel about that.” Jo paused, trying to let me in on what was going on in her head, but her stream of consciousness was full of twists and turns. To her, it undoubtedly made sense, but I had to hold onto the lap bar as I rode this roller coaster, just to make sure I kept up with her. “If I leave, what happens to this place? I’m not the guardian of it, I mean I shouldn’t be, but it’s like I am. It shouldn’t even be any of my concern, but... leaving here would mean goodbye.”

In my head, I thought, goodbye to what? Goodbye to a home that was already empty? Goodbye to a father that had abandoned her? She didn’t—and never would—say goodbye to James.

“And it’s not just me saying goodbye. It’s bigger than that. I’m the last one who cares, the last one who even knows the significance of this place and gives two shits about it. If no one’s here, this entire place will be forgotten, and everything it used to be and what it still means to me. When I close the door of this home, it’s closing the door on that whole entire part of my life. It’s leaving that all behind. And I know that it’s always been that way, but this is just so... final. God, I’m scared, because what happens if I let it all go, and you leave me, too?”

Her insecurity meant she was holding onto the past, a past full of pain. All because she was worried that she’d be opening herself up to a new hurt. “Jo—”

“Please don’t say anything,” she weakly demanded. “I know what you’re going to say, and you’re going to say all the right things, Kris, but you can’t predict the future. I trust that you mean every word, but I don’t trust this fickle world. Haven’t we been through this before, that bad things happen even if we kick and scream and beg and barter and plead and try to make sure that they won’t? You’ve been through it, and so have I, and we both know that it sucks and you can’t stop what happens no matter how hard you try. So, what if I move in with you, and then we break up and I end up right back here, after I say my goodbyes to it and leave it behind? What if... what you say makes you happy now won’t make you happy in a few months?”

I opened my mouth and waited for a profound statement to come out. But it didn’t, so I tried to think of something. “I guess you’re right. Neither of us knows what’s going to happen. But isn’t that the point of enjoying the good stuff now, while it lasts? Isn’t that what you’ve said to me?” When I said that, my own words surprised me. It sounded a little cynical, but I meant it to be hopeful.

“Yeah, it is,” she sighed, her head flopping backward so she could stare at the dresser again. “Since when did you start believing it?”

“Since you stopped.” I moved into the room, standing over her so she had to look at me instead of James’s old trophies. “Can I tell you what I think is going on here?” She nodded, so I offered my explanation. “I think you’re finally mourning the loss of your brother because you’re trying to move on without really dealing with it, and that’s why you’re so worked up about everything,” I told her, hinting that maybe she was overthinking her decision about whether or not she wanted to leave this place behind and start over. Because this was her childhood home, and maybe subconsciously she hadn’t yet realized that she wasn’t ready to let go, move out, and move on. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me or that she didn’t want to live with me; not at all. This was something else entirely.

The pain she still felt regarding James and how her world had been rocked was like a black hole in her heart: it sucked up all the good emotions that she felt and that people shared with her, still leaving her with an empty, sinking sensation. I knew that well, because I had been there, desperately trying to fill a hole that can’t be filled. And I knew what it was like to be surrounded by people who don’t understand it either, people who think you’re just being greedy because you take and take and demand so much from them when you’re just trying to fill that hole. How even your own love for someone else can’t escape past the event horizon—it just gets sucked back up inside your black hole heart. It wasn’t her fault; she couldn’t help it.

She felt like she had been taking advantage of me and of Tubby, but that wasn’t her purposeful intention. No one ever realizes how death can affect you, beyond just the initial loss and depression. It changes everything.

“Sorry, Kris, but that’s fucking bullshit. I’ve been mourning him since I got the news.”

“Let me finish?” I knelt and cradled her face in my hands, looking down into her eyes. She stayed quiet, letting me go on with my speech. “I don’t mean being sad. You’ve been sad for two years. I mean, mourn. Grieve. Dealing with it and trying to move on. I think that after it happened, things kinda fell apart and you did what you had to in order to survive in the present moment. That’s why you lived moment to moment, day by day, never letting yourself think about the future. But now you’re trying to go forward, and you think it means letting go of the past—when really it just means letting go of the pain associated with it. There's a difference between the two, because eventually you’ll be able to remember James and the way your family was and the good times and not feel quite so devastated by the loss of it.

“But until you let go of the hurt, you won’t let yourself be happy. And I think you won’t because you think that you’re doing James a disservice if you do. Like if you’re not saddened by it anymore, it means you’re not missing him or you’ve forgotten him. But that’s not true. In fact, it’s a disservice if you let this stop you from living your life and achieving all your dreams. You can do it, Jo. You can miss him without being crippled by the pain.”

“But I thought you said it always hurts.”

“It does, Jo, but—”

“Then how can I ever think of James and not feel like half of me has died?” There was a twinge of attitude in her voice, but she asked with complete sincerity. “How did you do it?”

I shrugged and tilted my head to the side. “I had people around me who I could talk to and share things with, like Luc’s family, his girlfriend, my mom—even the guys who didn’t know Luc were understanding. At first, we couldn’t talk about him or our memories of him without feeling like the world was ending. But eventually, as we continued to talk about him and remember, it got easier. It’s because I had them there to go through that with. And who was there for you?”

“Tubby,” she said with a slight smile.

Nodding, I answered, “Yeah, and I’m glad that you had someone like Tubby. But he kept you in this bubble—”

“Please don’t bad-mouth him. He might not be perfect, but he was always around for me.”

“And I’m grateful for him for that, but you know, he sheltered you and kept you from going through all this back then, so you have to do it now. I’ve seen the way he acts around you, and every time something starts to upset you, he backs off and tries to smooth it over. That’s not how grief works... you have to go through it in order to move on.”

Jo opened her mouth, undoubtedly to defend him, and I spoke before she could interrupt. “And I understand why he feels that way and why he acted like that, because I don’t want you to hurt either, Jo. But I also know that bad things happen sometimes. That’s part of life, so you’ve gotta be equipped with the skills to handle this kind of stuff. That’s what I want for you, so I know that no matter what, you’re gonna be okay. So you’ll always be able to stand on your two feet if things go bad.”

The parallels between this moment, and another back at my apartment a while back, were not lost on us. This was very similar to the day after she was drugged. The topic of discussion had changed, but my purpose was essentially identical; I needed to know that Jo would be capable of taking care of herself, in case I wasn’t around to be her support. It wasn’t that I always needed her to be so strong, because that was an impossible standard to hold someone to, but that she wouldn’t fall apart and disintegrate all alone.

“I want to be strong for you, Kris, but I don’t know how.”

“You have to let it hurt so it can get better. A broken heart’s just like a broke bone. If you don’t let yourself feel the pain when it hurts, how do you ever know when the pain really goes away and the bone is healed? How will you ever know when you’re better and healthy again?”

“X-rays,” she chuckled, pointing to her leg. In true Jo fashion, she did her best to lighten the mood. But this time, she didn’t keep avoiding the issue. When her light laughter faded into the silence of the room, she took one of my hands in hers, rubbing the pad of her thumb over my calloused knuckles. Then she pressed our hands together, palm to palm, and measured the size of her hand against mine. I couldn’t help but think that she was comparing the two, like if only she were bigger, she’d be strong enough to weather the storm. “But how can I ask you to tolerate this from me? How can I possibly step into your home and bring all this baggage with me, and force you to make room for it in your tiny apartment? You’ve got enough on your plate, and I care about you too much to make you put yourself through that. I refuse to be the cause of your misery. Don’t you understand that I don’t want to do this to you?”

I entwined my fingers with hers and squeezed. “If you’ve got baggage, then I’ll buy a big ole house with lots of storage,” I responded, keeping with her metaphor before I spoke literally. “I’d be more miserable without you. Let me help you. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I know what it’s like, I’ve been there, and maybe I can take what I’ve learned and put it to use to help you, too. Besides, I think Luc would get a kick out of his ability to help people, even after death. Let us help.”

Her lips curled upward, and it fascinated me how her smile looked like a frown since she was upside-down. I could see puzzle pieces falling into place in her sad eyes, watching as something came to fruition in her head. “You already have.”

Her hands moved behind my neck awkwardly as she looked at me upside-down. She pulled me closer to her and pouted her lips. I kissed her as her fingers twirled the hair at the nape of my neck, and I put every ounce of myself into this kiss to lend a physicalness to my emotions. Jo responded favorably by rolling onto her stomach and pushing herself up, and I moved synchronously with her, so our mouths never broke apart in the process.

Jo pulled me down on the bed with her, rolling me over until she was on top and straddling me, leaning over my chest as she swirled her tongue in my mouth and her hands slipped under my shirt. There was an urgency to her movements, but there was no rush. I could tell that she, too, was trying to put her emotions into actions. It was another instance of how I could tell what she was feeling, even if she was still unable to say it.

I grabbed her shoulders and pushed her into a sitting position. “Not here,” I told her breathlessly, a smirk on my face. “I don’t think James would appreciate this.”

She smiled back, her face glowing, like I was in on her secret and she was happy to have shared it. I grabbed her hand and pushed off the bed, pulling her into the hallway so we could finish her packing and get her established in her new home.

I helped her throw some clothes into her bags. Jo may not have said it, but I knew that this was more than spending a few nights together; it would last for as long as it possibly could. Just the way she was talking was enough to clue me in to that, even if she couldn’t tell me. Hell, maybe she didn’t even know it herself. She’d asked me earlier, “What if I leave?” But in reality, she’d already left. Jo had left last week—except she hadn’t realized that yet.

Just like how she may not have said the L word yet, but I knew she loved me. Once her heart could escape the event horizon, she’d know it, too. I understood what she was going through, so I knew she had to get her own emotions sorted out before she could reciprocate. She did reciprocate; I could feel it as sure as I could feel her touch.

Jo packed more than clothes and essentials. She also brought her laptop, her jewelry box, her slippers, and the small stuffed dog that was perched next to her pillow. That was enough to clue me in that she wasn’t looking to come back here anytime soon. I helped carry her bags down the stairs, and we tossed them into the trunk of her car—which she’d be driving to my place to have, so she could commute to and from work. Just another sign that this was the permanent move, even if she wouldn’t say so.

Once everything was packed up, Jo insisted on doing a walk-through of the house, making sure that she wasn’t forgetting anything and that everything was shut off as a precaution. She was worried about something bad happening, like an electrical fire, which would cause the place to go up in smoke. But she didn’t let that fear stop her from pushing me out of the building as made sure the door was locked behind her.

Her hands were shaking and she was fumbling with her keys, but her eyes were dry and her voice was clear as she promised that she’d follow me in her car and meet me at my apartment.

Monday, March 22, 2010

60.) Another Side

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. You really did help! I'm a bit tired, and it's not that great, but I just wanted to get it posted anyway. You all made me feel so motivated, so I want to get to the good stuff brewing in my brain.



The car ride was quiet. It wasn’t a bad quiet, necessarily; it wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable. But I didn’t like it. And it’s not like we hadn’t talked after our nap, because we had; we talked only about trivial things that didn’t matter. Like when Kris had finally checked his messages and saw that Max was inviting some of the guys over—and that if we weren’t too busy then we were encouraged to attend as well.

Kris said he didn’t care, either way, so I said that we should go. Mostly for the distraction. There was so much going on that I needed to think about it, and I knew I couldn’t do that with him around, just me and him in this small apartment.

I looked out the window at the passing surroundings at Kris drove us to Max’s house on the Southside. It seemed silly for Max to have his teammates over, seeing as though he was just on a road trip with them for several days, but I was thankful for the reason to go out and maybe not think about everything that happened.

He carried in a duffel bag with him to the house, which he had stuffed that fireman’s outfit into to return to Max. As soon as we were inside, he excused himself to go put it away or hide it in some closet. Kris’s ears were pink just talking about it, and I suppressed the snicker that threatened to erupt. Just the slightest insinuation of what transpired this morning, before he popped that monster question, was enough to get my mind off said question and lighten the mood.

As Kris took the stairs two at a time, I made my way into the house. I nodded at the people I recognized as I found the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water for Kris, because I knew that’s what he’d like, and then picked out a can of Mountain Dew for myself.

“Jo!” I heard my name being called, so I turned around and found Max strolling in. “I didn’t expect you guys to come. I figured you’d either be too busy or too tired,” he laughed.

“We decided to take a break,” I giggled, rolling my eyes.

“So where is Lover Boy?”

It was my turn to blush. “Around. So, um, I guess I should be thanking you?”

He chuckled, holding his hands out at his sides. “What can I say? I’m a genius.”

“Yeah, well, Mr. Genius, do me a favor and stay out of mine and Kris’s sex life from now on, ’kay?”

“Why? You were just thanking me a second ago.” He shook his head and went off on a tangent. “I was wondering if he’d have the balls to actually go through it.”

I punched his arm. “Well, he did. Some of those lines you gave him were downright horrible though. So, I’m trying to tell you that I guess I appreciate the, uh, gesture? But seriously, he doesn’t need your advice.”

“Come on. You liked it, non?” I nodded in response. “If a fireman’s not your thing, I have some other... outfits... I can lend him. Tell me what you like. I’ve got a slew of things. How do you feel about cowboys? Wanna get hogtied?”

I laughed, wondering why the hell I was having this discussion with his teammate. “Um, no thanks.”

“What about a doctor? He can examine you from head to toe, if ya know what I mean.”

“Ew, Max, that’s kind of gross,” I told him, thinking of all the doctor’s appointments I’ve ever had and how that did not seem sexy in the least. “And how the hell did you even get him to agree? That was so out of character for him.”

Max shrugged, a smile playing on his lips. “What can I say? Lover boy’s willing to do anything to make you happy, even if it means stepping out of his comfort zone.”

Nodding, I tried to accept that simple answer. But I couldn’t. Max’s broad observation brought to mind everything that happened this morning—the sexual escapade and then the question, too. That was exactly what Kris had said too, that it was all about making me happy. That’s what troubled me so much. Yeah, I know that he had my best interests at heart, but in trying to fulfill that for me, what was he sacrificing for himself?

This morning, it was his dignity. I know he felt like a fool in that garb, and he had been so relieved when I told him he didn’t have to continue. He was awkward, but it was endearing and heart-warming that he had put his pride and self-respect on the shelf for a few minutes because he thought I’d like it.

So was it the same this time around, when he asked me to move in? He knew it would make me happier than going home, but would it make him happy? Because that’s all I concerned about. And if Kris was willing to put my happiness over his own, then I was left with the task of ensuring his. And I wasn’t sure that moving in would really make him all that happy. It would, because that’s what he said he wanted, but did he really?

Kris was a stand-up guy. He stuck up for his teammates when they were in trouble. And he had his head screwed on straight, when it came to everything. His ambitions, his goals, the way he trained and took care of himself so he was in peak physical condition for the season, his temperament. He always kept his eye trained on the ultimate goal, always looking toward the future. So maybe this was just his conscience talking.

Wasn’t that why he took our relationship slowly at first? Because he was thinking of the long-term, so he didn’t want to rush and ruin things. He wanted to do right by me, he said. But now that he was sure of how he felt, or at least that he said he was so sure about his feelings, he was ready to dive in head first. Now I had to figure out the same.

If it were strictly up to me, I would have said yes because it was what I wanted—and like Kris said, I always do what I want when I want, because life’s too short to do otherwise. It was what I wanted even if I wasn’t as positive in how I felt about him, but once again, I wasn’t sure if it would be any good for Kris. I’d be intruding on his space, demanding his time and attention, and there would be no escaping me. How would we share the bathroom? What if I was too messy for him? And what if it didn’t work out and we broke up in a month? Kris wouldn’t be the type of guy to kick me out with nowhere to go, but... where would I have to go? I’d be in this exact same position.

That’s why I wanted him to do things for himself, and not for me. Doing things for himself would be doing things for me, because seeing him being happy and selfish sometimes would make me happy. Maybe it seemed like foolish logic, but Kris was always thinking about others before himself. Maybe that’s why I put him first, is because he put himself last.

I thought about Kris all the time: often, his thoughts, opinions, and desires were the first things on my mind when it came time for me to make a decision. Because all I really want to do is make the boy happy, in whatever possible ways I can. I put his wants and needs before my own. But did that mean I loved him? Well, of course I loved him, but was I in love with him? And if I were in love with him, wouldn’t I just know? If it took me this long to try and figure it out, wasn’t that a dead give-away that, maybe, possibly, I didn’t? Was there a line where “caring a lot about him” became “loving him”? Or was I just scared to admit it, because my relationships with all the people I ever cared about—loved—never seemed to work out the way I wanted them to?

Love is why people move in together. Boyfriends and girlfriends don’t take this step unless they’re in love and willing to take that big step toward the ultimate commitment. I liked Kris so, so much, but I hadn’t even thought about it. Even if Kris hadn’t just said what he had said because he knew I wanted to hear it, it wasn’t fair of me to demand that he tell me how he felt, when I wasn’t quite sure myself. It was too soon to think about love. Wasn’t it? After all, I was crazy about him, and he knew that. That much was blatantly obvious.

Max spoke again, which disturbed my wild, rambling thoughts. “Why? You’re not complaining, are you?”

“Huh?” I asked, so caught up in my head that I had forgotten what we were talking about. I looked back up at Max as Alex and Tyler walked into the kitchen for more beer.

“It sounds like you’re complaining about it, when all he wanted to do was make sure you were happy. Tanger didn’t like that you were mad after his fight.”

I shrugged. “I’m not complaining. And I couldn’t stay mad at him if I wanted to.” I watched through the open room as Kris descended the stairs and was stopped by Heather and Jordan to chat. He looked over at me and smiled, and I smiled back. “How could anyone stay mad at that?” I giggled, Max following my line of sight.

Alex laughed. “Sure, it’s easy to say that now. But you should have seen him years ago.” Tyler nodded.

“Why? What do you know about him that I don’t know?”

“Well, he used to be so hopeless and useless.” I tilted my head and looked at him, searching his face for answers. “Back in Wilkes-Barre, he couldn’t do a damn thing unless he asked permission first. He was like my little brother, tagging along for everything. No car, not even a license,” he chuckled.

Tyler added, “Oh yeah. He was such a momma’s boy. He was completely unprepared for being on his own, after juniors.”

“I don’t think I believe that,” I laughed, shaking my head. Surely these boys were just making stuff up about Kris. He seemed so self-assured. Confident. Determined. I mean, just look at the way he approached me at the beginning of the season, so sure of himself that it was annoying and I couldn’t stand him at first. And he’s got his philosophy on life hammered out in stone, which he lives by unwaveringly.

Of course, then I thought about how he stumbled through those fireman lines. The way he couldn’t look at me at the hospital. Taking him to the zoo on a whim. Surprising him by going out to Raccoon to look at the stars on my birthday. When he was outside of his comfort level, he was shy and quiet and timid. Not that there was anything wrong with that.

Jordan called over to our little group. “Talbot! Kennedy! We’re doing shots! Bring Jo!”

“Whadya say? Never Have I Ever?” Max asked, slinging an arm around my shoulders.

“Ugh, no,” I groaned, remembering the last time I played that game with them. I removed his arm. “Never am I ever playing that game with you cheats again.”

“Aww, come on. We had fun last time, didn’t we?”

I shook my head. It’s not that I didn’t have fun with them, but I wasn’t going to drink. Part of me wanted to, to help ease my mind of the situation I found myself in currently, but that was part of the issue. That’s why I had been a drinker in the past, to help numb the anxiety associated with the stress of living—which was what I was trying to avoid. It was a lot harder to not rely on a drug, but it was a bad coping mechanism. It just covered up my feelings temporarily, so then when I had to feel, I didn’t know how to do it.

Which was exactly my problem now. I was so stressed out, and because of that I was freaking out on Kris and trying to avoid him because of the way he made me feel.

“Your loss,” they laughed, leaving me and Alex behind.

“Was he really that bad?” I asked him, now curious to learn about this side of Kris, which had previously been kept from me. The Kris I knew was so well put together that I couldn’t imagine him otherwise, especially if he were particularly needy and clingy and dependent on the guys.

“Well, he’s been up in Pittsburgh for a couple years now. And he’s comfortable here,” Alex added. “He’s really coming into his own as a player. He makes the rest of us look like trade bait.”

That took me off guard. “Wait, what? Alex, you don’t think....”

“Trade deadline’s months away, I keep telling myself. But if Tanger keeps playing as well as he is, and I don’t pick it up, well, I can kiss my spot on the roster goodbye.”

I sighed, not sure what to say. This wasn’t like the high school varsity team, where anyone who wanted to sign up was guaranteed to be on the team regardless of skill level. “You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do,” he snorted bitterly. “He’s a great two-way defenseman. They’re starting to play him with Orps, he’s a shut-down man. My forte is strictly offensive ability, which I’m sorely lacking in right now. Haven’t scored since the beginning of November.”

“You just hit a minor bump in the road. You can turn it around yet. Try growing your mustache back,” I laughed. “It seemed to have done wonders for you!”

He rolled his eyes but laughed. “No way in hell am I ever losing Mustache Boy again.”

“I think I have it figured out. See, you lost the shoot out game, and you had to wear your loss on your face for the whole month. And so you had something to prove all month, that yeah, you can score goals. But as soon as you shaved it off, you didn’t have that sense of motivation anymore.”

Alex chuckled again. “Maybe.”

Kris walked in. “There you are,” he said to me, sidling up to me and kissing my cheek. I handed him the bottle of water I’d gotten for him. “Thanks.”

Alex gave Kris a head nod in greeting and then slipped out of the kitchen, leaving us two alone again. This was what I had wanted to avoid by coming here. “You’re welcome.”

“You okay?” he asked softly, wrapping his arm around my waist.

“You know it,” I sighed, taking a sip from the can in my hand.

“Because you’ve been kind of quiet.”

“Just thinking, that’s all.”

“If this is still about—”

“Don’t, Kris, I’ve got to figure it out on my own. This isn’t just spending the night anymore.” He brushed the hair off my forehead, looking like he had some things to say, but he kept his mouth closed. “And just like I wanted to make sure that you were asking for all the right reasons, I want to make sure I’m accepting for all the right reasons. You get that, right?” He nodded. “Good. Because this is such a big decision, you know?” He nodded again, staying silent as I thought out loud. “And the last thing I want to do is screw this up, when I’ve got something so good going with you. I don’t think it’s a decision I can make in a day, but, like, that doesn’t mean I want to be away from you, either. I don’t want to tell you no. I don’t have a reason to turn you down.”

Kris opened his mouth to speak, but he promptly clamped it shut and kept quiet.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to say yes. I don’t want to lead you on.”

“It’s not leading me on as long as you fill me in whenever you figure it out. You know, saying yes or no doesn’t mean you can’t spend the night every now and again.”

“Wouldn’t you be mad, though?”

“No,” he chuckled, giving me a hug. I shook as the motion of his body transferred to me. “I get it. This is permanent, a big deal. I don’t want you to take this lightly, and I want you to do it for the right reasons, too.”

“Good.” I squeezed him back. “But I mean, what do we do until I decide?”

“Whatever you want. You know where I’ll be sleeping tonight. And you can join me or not. But seeing as though I’ve missed you so much, I hope that you keep that in mind when you decide where to go tonight.”

“Really?”

“Mmm hmm. I’ve got five lonely nights to make up for.”

“Christ, how can I turn that down?” I laughed, thankfully that I had bought myself some time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

59.) More Than Enough

Okay, so, here's the deal. I wasn't quite sure how to get the plot where I wanted it, so I wrote, edited, deleted, rewrote, started over from scratch, and struggled to write Kris's character when I was bitterly faced with the fact that no guy will ever be like this. Which is probably why I find the need to write them this way. Long story short, I'd love your feedback on this one. It would have been up sooner, but every time I got close to what I thought was the end, it just kept going. And going. Etcetera.

Sound track Song - Manchester Orchestra, Shake It Off

I felt Jo’s body convulse once again as she let out what I could only describe as a whimper. “Okay, seriously,” she eked out breathlessly. “I’m tapping out. I really need a break.... I can’t even see straight.”

Collapsing beside her, I was just as drained and exhausted as she looked and sounded. We’d spent the past two hours in bed, nonstop groping and kissing, taking turns with each other’s bodies, and dragging out our reunion for as long as possible. Now I felt empty and sated and completed. She grabbed my arm and pulled it around her, rolling so she faced away from me. I took the not-so-subtle hint and spooned her loosely, closing my eyes and finally resting. All of my nerve endings were in hyper drive, so I kept a bit of space between us. “I told you I was going to kiss you blind.”

“Mmm, and you have clearly succeeded,” she giggled, wiggling against me to erase that gap of space and get as close as possible while she wrapped herself up in my arms. She wanted physical nearness, and even though my body was still humming, I couldn’t not accommodate that desire of hers. “If we’re going to do this every time you return from a road trip, when are you leaving again?”

Laughing, I joked back, “And I missed you, too, Jo.” I couldn’t help but think, though, that this would be a great feeling to come home to after road trips. Coming home and taking my girl to bed, making love until exhaustion set in... this was something I could definitely get used to.

“Not as much as I missed you,” she sighed. Then she sat up, disturbing the position we had just comfortably settled into. Jo grabbed the comforter from the end of the bed, where we had flung it to get it out of the way, and pulled it over our bodies. She nestled against me again, this time curling up and pressing her forehead against my sternum as we settled in to relax or sleep or whatever. I just needed to recuperate and gather my strength again for the afternoon.

“Yeah?” I asked, more to just say something than really questioning it. I knew she missed me; you’d really have to be blind not to see that we were a little caught up in each other. “And how could you possibly know how much I missed you?”

“Because I just know,” she grinned, fidgeting again and disrupting me.

“Will you just pick a spot and stick with it?” I didn’t ask it mean-spiritedly, but it was hard to relax when she was so moving around restlessly.

“I’m sorry,” she groaned. I could feel her breath on my skin as her lips moved. “But I spent five nights in this bed without you, and I got used to sleeping here alone. Now I’ve got to remember how to get comfy.”

“So, you stayed here? The whole time?” She hadn’t brought it up while I was on the road, so I took that to mean that she went home and just didn't know how to tell me that she didn’t want to stay at my place. But I was glad to be able to have a place to offer her, glad to have the means to help her out anyway I could.

“Mmhmm,” she hummed. Jo rambled a bit as fatigue set in. “It was a little weird, being here without you. But it’s gonna be even worse to go back home again.”

An inexplicable sense of satisfaction washed over me. Or maybe it was easily explained after all—of course it felt good to hear that she did in fact come here instead of her house. It made me feel like I had something she needed, like she needed me and what I had to give. What I could provide. It made me feel like more than just her boyfriend, but like a man.

A part of me wondered if she had meant to say that, or if maybe her guard was down as her mind prepared for sleep. People generally have a tendency to let things slip out like that at such a time; however, just because she potentially didn’t mean to say it didn’t mean she didn’t really mean it.

I wasn’t sure how to say what I was thinking, but my own tired brain let my mouth speak the words anyway. It was so nice coming home to her that I had to extend the invitation. “Well, you know, you don’t have to go back.” Jo immediately squirmed out of my arms and sat up, and my body instantly felt cooler. I groaned, disturbed again that she moved. I thought she was exhausted. “Can’t you just lie down and be still?”

Her voice was quiet but firm. “Kristopher Allen Letang.”

Once she used my full name, even my middle name—which I didn’t even know she knew—I was in trouble. Big trouble. She didn’t even let loose with that after my fight. I opened my eyes to see the vacant, scared, deer-in-headlights look on her face as she sat there, her left hip touching mine as she peered down at me. I playfully mocked her. “Joanna Rachelle Anderson—”

“Don’t you fucking do that,” Jo interrupted, crossing her arms. “Don’t play this off all cutesy. Did you just say what I think you just said?”

“It depends on what I think you think I said to you,” I retorted, wanting desperately to lighten the mood. I was exhausted and not sure if I could deal with these bitter repercussions. I should’ve just kept my mouth shut and gone to sleep.

She glared at me. “Then why don’t you rephrase that and be a little clearer?”

I sighed and looked her square in the eyes as I said, “If you don’t want to go home, you don’t have to. You could just... stay here.” Jo kept looking at me, begging with her eyes for the simplest version of my statement. So I finally declared, “Move in with me.”

Jo nodded, but not in acceptance. She nodded in understanding. “That’s what I thought you said.”

Waiting for her response, I wondered to myself if I had expected a yes or a no. I certainly hadn’t expected this: I watched her face change a thousand different times, revealing that she was thinking a thousand different thoughts. I wasn’t sure what any of them were. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. “So?”

“Why did you have to ask me that?”

“Wait, I didn’t have to ask you that.”

“That’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean to imply that you thought you had to,” she said, shaking her head. “You know that I didn’t say what I said about it being worse because I wanted you to say that, right?”

It took me a moment to figure out what the hell she had asked before I could answer her. Slowly, I nodded. “I know that when you want something, then you just outright ask for it. Because you always just say whatever you’re thinking. Except for right now. Say no if you don’t want to. You’re making this harder than it has to be.”

“This isn’t about turning you down. Don’t you get it, Kris?” Jo looked at me like I was a complete and utter idiot. She was starting to freak out. “Don’t you understand the weight of that question? It’s so fucking heavy. You need to appreciate the significance of this.”

I still didn’t quite get what the big deal was. Wasn’t it the natural progression? Moreso, wasn’t this what we wanted? “I know that this is a big step, Jo, but—”

“This isn’t a step. It’s a huge leap! A huge fucking colossal pole vault. There’s so much involved here, and you’re overlooking it. You’re taking this way too lightly.”

“I guess it’s really kind of soon, but that doesn’t bother me,” I started, thinking I finally figured out what her problem with the idea was. If she were okay with staying here while I was away, what was the big deal about making it permanent? It’s not like we never spent the night together before. Now it would be every night. I liked that idea.

“No, that’s not the issue I have with this. You’re missing it.”

“So enlighten me, then.” Jo silently shook her head in response to my plea. “You won’t give me an answer... you won’t say yes, you won’t say no... and you won’t explain why you’re not answering or even tell me whatever it is that’s holding you back from answering. Jo, you always just say what you’re thinking, to a fault. Why won’t you now?”

She rocked back and sat with her legs out in front of her, pulling her knees up to her chest. “I’m afraid to ask the question. I’m afraid of what you’ll say back. You don’t seem to understand how fucking epic this is, and just the fact that you don’t get it is enough to make me really hesitant to even have this discussion with you.”

“What could I possibly say to you that you’ve got to be worried about? I mean, if I like you enough to have asked you to move in, that says a lot, doesn’t it?” Jo snorted, and I felt irritated. “What is it?” She still didn’t respond, so I continued again, “How are we supposed to figure this out unless you talk to me? I can’t unask it, and I don’t want to either, just to pretend that it didn’t happen. Are you worried that we’ll get sick of each other?”

“No.”

“Is this about being independent, or feeling like a mooch?”

“No.”

I changed my tone. “Is it because you think we’ll fight constantly about me leaving the toilet seat up?”

That elicited a tiny giggle. She cupped my cheek gently. “No. For some reason, I have a feeling that you would be a complete gentleman in that regard.”

I smiled, a little relieved to see her lighten up the slightest bit. I took her hand in mine and rubbed my thumb over it, speaking quietly and coaxing her into opening up. “Then what is it? Tell me.”

“No, see, that’s just it. I don’t want to have to tell why it’s a big deal, if it hasn’t already occurred to you. Can we drop this?”

“No, we can’t drop it. If it hasn’t occurred to me, whatever ‘it’ is supposed to be, then maybe it isn’t even an issue! Maybe you’re looking for something that isn’t there. Besides, how can I convince you it’s right if you won’t tell me why it’s wrong?”

“Because! If I have to tell you why it’s wrong, it’ll be impossible for you to convince me that it’s not wrong. Oh God, the longer we keep this up, the worse it gets. Please, Kris, if you just take it back, then we don’t have to do this. Ask again when you understand all the implications, and I’ll gladly tell you yes. But if you make me talk about this now, and you give me the wrong answer, it’s out there, forever.” She looked at me desperately, pleading with her eyes for me to take back the words and not pose the question, but I can’t erase time and nor do I want to.

I stared at her for a second. “I already told you. I don’t want to take it back and pretend this never happened. Because it would just be like if you told me no without the closure of hearing you say it. Whatever question it is that’s such a big deal, just ask it so we can deal with this. You’re trying to cover up the problem instead of address it. And you’re right—the longer we do this, the more you freak out and the more frustrated I get. Just come out with it already!” I never really understood what people meant when they said that the tension was palpable. But now I did. The atmosphere was thick and suffocating, and you could cut it with a knife.

She shook her head in aggravation. “You’re so innocent about this that it would be absolutely endearing, if it didn’t piss me off. I can’t believe you’re making me do this. You wanna hear it? Fine. But then there’s no going back, ya hear?” I nodded, and finally she asked the big question that was causing her to freak out, “Why did you ask me to move in with you? Why do you want me to move in with you?”

It was a simple question; in fact, it was such a simple question that I didn’t know what to say. What kind of reply was she looking for? I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to give her the wrong response. Not when I could see water begin to pool in her eyes, most likely because I didn’t have an automatic answer on hand. This was a really big deal to her, and I still didn’t know why. “I mean, why not?”

“Ugh, Kris....”

“What? Seriously, Jo, why not? Is there a reason I shouldn’t have asked? Because I don’t know why you’re acting this way. This feels like a trick question. If I don’t get the riddle, then you’ll be like the Sphinx and kill me.”

“God, Kris, don’t you know me by now? I’m not trying to make you jump through hoops. I’m not like that. This isn’t a trick. And I’m not playing games with you. I just want you to be totally honest and tell me your reason for asking me to move in with you.”

She looked at me expectantly, and I thought about what sparked this whole thing. I was enjoying lying there with her, holding her, feeling satisfied that she was able to use something from me that I could provide her. And I didn’t want to take it away from her. I said, “Your home isn’t your home. I’m not going to make you go back there when you don’t want to. So I was just letting you know that you could stay here, tonight, tomorrow, however long you want. Forever, even, if you wanted. You could make this your home.” I thought I was being romantic, letting her know that I would indefinitely be here for her, whatever she wanted. I was opening my door to her and letting her make the ultimate decision to step through it or not. Opening up my home to her permanently. Opening my heart to her and letting her in irrevocably.

Jo nodded, subtly at first, but the gesture got bigger as her tears flooded over onto her cheeks. I interpreted the movement to mean she was accepting, and it made my heart swell that she had agreed. Reaching for her, I froze as she shrunk away from me and flat-out said, “Wrong answer.”

My mouth fell open. All I could do was sit there and watch as she scooted to the edge of the bed, pulling the sheet around her like it was protective shield. Wrong answer. She asked me to be honest, and I was—so how could it be wrong? It didn’t make sense.

The sound of a choked-out sob brought me out of my catatonic state. Fucking hell, I didn’t know why she was so upset; although I may not have been crying, I was hurt by all this, too. It was a seemingly innocent question, asked in order to bring us closer, and yet here she was, physically repulsed by me, turning me down. Turning down what I had, mere seconds ago, been so proud of being able to offer her. It was like a stab in the heart. I closed my hand around her arm, firmly but gently, in an effort to get her to stay. “How is that wrong?!”

Her back was still toward me. “Because that is not why people move in together. This was exactly what I was afraid of: you’re being your normal self, being all noble and merely doing the right thing. Which means treating me like a stray in need of shelter. Poor Jo once again needs pointed in the right direction—”

I felt blindsided, wondering where the hell she came up with this explanation out of everything I just said. I moved behind her and put my hands on her bare shoulders. “No. No, that’s not it at all, Jo—”

She spoke loudly. It was clear and loud, not shaky at all like I expected it to be considering she was crying. “Yes,” she hissed. “You don’t want to kick me out. I get it. But you won’t be. I’ll manage on my own, just like always.”

I couldn’t believe she said that. “You’re twisting my words around!”

“Isn’t that what you meant? You feel bad that my home sucks, so you’re letting me stay here. Like a fucking women’s shelter. It’s so demeaning.”

Wiping my hand over my face and through my hair, I digressed. “See? I was right. You’re actively trying to find a way to find something wrong with my invitation so you can turn it down. That’s not what I said, and you certainly know it’s not what I meant. If you didn’t want to, all you had to do was say no, and that would have been that. No need to blame me.”

“Did I blame you? Nope! I told you to be honest. I didn’t want to move in for the wrong reasons, Kris, or want you to want me to move in for the wrong reasons. That’s what this was about. I would have said yes if you had told me you wanted me to.”

Still clueless, I asked, “That’s what you were looking to hear? That I wanted you to move in with me because I wanted you to?”

She clutched the white sheet to her body and nodded. Her voice was low when she said, “Yeah, Kris. It’s that simple.”

“But of course I want you to!” I huffed, now completely exasperated. “If I didn’t want you to move in, I never would have asked in the first place! Wasn’t that inherent?”

“But that’s not what you said.”

“Well, it’s not what I meant,” I said, turning her and sitting beside her. “Jo...” I said softly, hoping to smooth this over. I thought it may have worked, because her eyes watered again. But this time, I didn’t jump to conclusions. She could have been crying for any number of reasons. I tried to cheer her up a bit with a little French, knowing how much she liked that. “Pourquoi dois-tu toujours être si difficile?

“Don’t do that,” she bit out. “Don’t try to be all sweet now. I told you once this all got out that we couldn’t go back. So you should learn to say what you mean, or mean what you say. Because you can’t tell a girl that you like her ‘enough’ and expect her to fall at your feet.”

I reached for her hand. She was reluctant to give it over, but she did; she still refused to look at me. Was that what she was really mad about? “You have to know that I like you more than enough, Jo. This is all a misunderstanding.”

“It’s not a little misunderstanding. This is why I didn’t want to do this,” she cried. “I don’t want to be the fuck-up that needs you to do the right thing for me, because I can’t do it for myself. I know I’ve made mistakes with my life, Kris, but I was trying to iron everything out because I wanted to be normal for you. Because I want to be the one that you can rely on, so you don’t always have to be the strong, reliable one. I wanted to be the one that you could more than just like.”

“What?” I was really fucking lost. “I, uh, I’m not even really sure what to say to that, except that I must have given you the wrong impression about me. I don’t mind if you have to rely on me. I like it, actually. I like that I can be that important to you. Because, yeah, Jo, I do more than just like you, more than enough. A lot more, actually. Joanna Rachelle, I love you.”

She cried some more and shook her head until she could speak clearly. “Don’t say that now. You’re just saying that, because you know it’s what I want to hear.”

She let me pull her onto my lap, the fight gone out of her and exhaustion setting back in. “No, I’m not. Listen to me. My mother raised me right, to treat girls with respect. Remember when you got all pissed off at me because I wanted to wait for our first time?” I cupped her cheek and made her face me, even though she wouldn’t meet my gaze. I could feel the motion of her nod through my hand. “It was such a big deal to me, and I wanted to make sure we did it right. That we didn’t jump into anything too soon. So I’m sure about this, and I’m sure as hell one hundred percent positive about how I feel about you. I do lo—”

“Don’t say it again. I can’t believe it when you say it under these circumstances. I’m sorry, Kris, Kristopher, I just can’t.”

It hurt that she wouldn’t accept it, but even more that I knew she wouldn’t be saying it back anytime soon. “I’ll wait. I’ll wait to say it again, when you can believe it, and I’ll wait patiently for the day when you feel the same.

“And Jo, if you still aren’t sure, of course I want you here. Do you know how nice it was to know I was coming home to you? How much I looked forward to it? How great it would be to know that the next time I leave and come back, you’ll be here again?” I brushed her cheek with the pad of my thumb. “I would never ask such a big question if I didn’t want it.”

“I just want you to do it for yourself and not because you’re trying again to fix me. I know I’m a work in progress, but you shouldn’t have to do that. This should be easy and simple, and not require any work. I should be good enough for you, as is. I want that for you,” she sniffed.

“Hey, you’re more than good enough. Sure, it’s partly for you, because I would do anything for you. Anything if it made you happy, which I would hope being here would make you happy. But yeah, it’s for me, too. And that’s what makes it so great, because it’s good for us both. So, what do you say?”

“I-I....”

“Do you want to think about it?” I asked her, tucking her hair behind her ears and holding her face in my hands.

Jo reluctantly lifted her eyes. “Yeah.”

“’Kay. I guess you have until tonight to make up your mind.” I gave her a small smile, and she mirrored it somberly. “I’m still going to be here for you, whatever you choose, you know that, right?”

She nodded, sniffing again. Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and nuzzled against my neck, never saying another word on the subject. I moved back on the bed, bringing her down to the mattress with me and pulling the blanket around us both. There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot for us to say on this matter anymore. Not yet, anyway.

A noise sounded, somewhere in the room, and Jo mumbled, “That’s your phone. You should get it.”

“We’re napping. It can wait,” I told her sleepily.

“It might be important.”

“I doubt it.” To appease her, though, I pushed off the bed with my screaming muscles and padded over to those disgustingly yellow pants and fished my phone out of my pocket. It was a simple message from Talbot, which I didn’t even bother to open and read. I just clicked ignore and climbed back into bed, crawling back under the covers with my girlfriend, and hopefully soon, my roommate.