Chapter 26

-26-

“Mama?” Look at me! I go higher.”

Melissa looked up from her spot on the bench towards the small child on the plastic play area and smiled. Lilly stood atop the platform near the slide next to a dark-haired child with hopeful eyes.

“Are you taking turns?”

“Watch mama, I do all by myself.”

“Do you need me to catch you.”

“No,” Lilly insisted. “I do all by myself!” And with that declaration the small moppy-haired child turned and slid down the spiraling slide amid a cascade of giggles.

No matter how many times her almost three-year-old had demonstrated this skill and independence, Melissa couldn’t help but say a prayer and hold her breath. No matter the number of safe landings, Melissa always felt certain that each new time would meet with some horrific crash and wail of tears.

But it never did, and so Melissa sat there watching silently as the bright-eyed child commanded her preschool companion to slide down and then together they scampered quickly up to the slide tower again. Melissa’s concern quickly melted away. Lilly, despite her mother’s greatest fears, was truly fearless and moreover she had a keen knack at adapting and finding an ally where ever she went.

Melissa continued watching Lilly and her new friend for several moments, then turned her attention back to the folder on her lap. She needed just a few more minutes to finish her editing, but hated to confine Lilly to the inside on rare days of indian summer. She studied the text she had been working through once more, but a sudden breeze swirled her hair about her face and as she attempted to tame her errant locks…turning her head slightly towards the park road as she did so…she saw him.

Or perhaps it was a wistful notion of him…dismounting from a bike and reaching for water…him?

A small blushing warmth quickly climbed her from her shoulders, to her neck and instantly to her cheeks. Him…had she forgotten how handsome he was? Was this somehow a dream? A hallucination?

She watched (though she didn’t intend to). Staring. Remembering. Half-in and half-out of a fog…when suddenly she saw he was looking back.

And just as suddenly she wanted to disappear.

He began moving toward her. Never once taking his eyes from her, his pace increased.

She looked away…toward Lilly and then the parking lot and her SUV which now seemed leagues away. The papers in her lap rustled in the breeze, perhaps also recognizing a need to escape. She looked again towards the play area and Lilly. Then back towards him.

And when he arrived at a distance of five feet, his pace became more cautious, he spoke and she knew she had no place to go.

“Tink?”

Her heart pounded in her throat and she bit her lip trying to hold back every urge within her body…the urge to flee…the urge to cry…

The urge to leap from the bench into his waiting arms, and hold tight to him forever.

She tried to avoid direct eye contact. She silently told herself that he’d have no power over her if she didn’t look into his eyes…those eyes. If she just didn’t see his lips move…he’d have no power over her.

But  just hearing his voice…feeling the nearness of him…she could feel it all flooding back…though she tried to contain it and remain cool, she knew that it was all flooding and it was only a matter of time before it would all spill over.

And she couldn’t have that. It had been years. He was married with at least one more child…she needed to stay away…from him and that desperate flood of feelings he always brought back to the surface every moment he was near.

She was never what he wanted. Never.

“Tink! I can’t believe it’s you!”

She couldn’t help but look up towards his face. His perfect-in-every-way face. She saw him speak again, but she did not hear the words as her eyes became transfixed on his mouth…those lips…

Breaking free of the trance she managed a “Hi.”

He was now talking quickly. Asking questions. But again she was watching his mouth and then tracing his skin…his face, softly with her eyes.

“How are you? What have you been up to? I can’t believe it’s you!”

She forced herself to break free again. “I’m fine. Working…always working,” and she patted the folder that she had been clinging to on her lap. “How are you? How are the…(she realized that she didn’t know what he and Jenna had and quickly adjusted the inquiry) kids?”

“Zach and Mike are great. I’m good. I can’t believe it’s really you! Do you live nearby?”

His eyes scanned to the left of her and then to the right, and with that he removed his sunglasses and she knew what little awkward control she had left would vanish. Those eyes…it wasn’t the color or the way they glinted in the sun…it was the intensity with which he was able to look…as if looking inside her…and at the same time pulling her and all her fears and wishes inside of him. It was the combination of his eyes and the sound of his voice…

And the mounting desire to touch his skin.

She was quite certain that she was caught staring at him because his lips curled up in that know-it-all smirk. At last she blurted out, “We moved away from Rochester. Just here for work once-in-a-while. Rochester never belonged to me, you know that.”

She wanted to ask him if he was happy, but knew it would sound cheap and almost groveling. She wanted him to tell her how much he missed her…how what she was to him could never be duplicated or replaced. She wanted him to tell her he wanted her back…how it was ALWAYS in all ways her in his heart and mind.

“So what’s new? How are you?” he asked again.

She felt the trembling begin. “Just work. We’re fine.”

“Are you seeing anyone?”

The question stabbed into her. How could he ever think that? Her breath caught and she had to suddenly look away and then down in her lap to fight back the tears she felt invading the bottom rim of her eyes.

Her voice cracked as she whispered, “No. I’ve still never dated anyone in my life.”

She could feel the pain swirling in her hollow areas inside. Building expodentally, again and again at an uncontolled rate. And before she could measure her words, they came spilling out…

“I had come back to Rochester for this one guy I liked…once…” she began.

And with that, nearly everything she swore for years that she would never divulge…The deepest secrets that had held her captive all those lonely nights when he was only moments away that she KNEW she needed to protect him from…

But here he was before her again, asking her in a seeming sober light. Inches from her touch and that which she had used to block all those seemingly secret memories and thoughts came flooding out of her mouth in a current that she could no longer stop…

It all came out….just spilled…How she had come back to Rochester. How she had envisioned meeting up with the guy she liked in a bar once he returned from a trip he was on…how she had it stupidly all pictured… passing him a note from across the room and how their eyes would meet…

And how it actually turned out that he was not IN the bar, but outside smoking a cigarette and staring at his phone. How the guy had been drunk, or at least appeared drunk like how some guys use a drunk act to appear cute or helpless or to get them off the hook. And she told of how he fed her that line…and how he “fell” against her in a lame attempt to get close, though she explained that the guy never actually needed either of the cheap ploys to get her because she had purposely come there…come back and gone there to get him.

And she told of the failed kiss…how she went for it, but at the last moment he had turned his head, as if unable to read what she thought were very obvious signals of  “I want you to make love to me.”

Word after word…flowing freely from her mouth, though she wanted them to stop. Needed them to stop. And she felt the tears betraying her too…tears and words tumbling so fast and freely now as if removing their weight was the only way she would be able to ever breathe again.

She told of how she wanted him to take her home, but when that offer never came, how she took him back to the place where she had been staying…a one room rat hole (that he later claimed he hated so much…but  somehow never remembered actually being in…a clue that she had waited and waited for him to put together for years…but he had been drunk and so he never did.)…and she told of how each of her delicate fantasies was overwritten by what appeared to be quickie on the toilet…how she had wanted sweet talk and kisses, but was told that her talking was making him “flaccid” and how that word had stopped her…how she wondered how a man so drunk could use such a sophisticated word…and him especially, because he had told her so many times that he “loved” her…hadn’t he always said he “wanted only” her?? (and how he later told her that there was no difference between making love and sex. it was all just sex.)

And finally she told of how he turned her around, lifted the skirt of her dress, roughly slid her underwear to one side and pushed himself, sight-unseen, inside her…held her shoulders firmly and thrusted himself within her…how that, being her first time since being raped all those months before, was clumsy and uncomfortable and distant and it was over in a matter of minutes in almost silence (except for his grunting and talking to himself…cheering his own efforts on).

She explained each of her expectations crashing upon a filthy tile floor……no unwrapping…no tender touches…it was as if he was afraid to even see her and most absolutely did not want to see the scars he had assured her would be fine (they weren’t fine…she knew it all now…she was not fine…)

And though it wasnt exactly a push off…though she wanted his touch to linger even though she knew he did not want her… 

She told of how he hastily left her…the wetness of what had been streaking down her legs, her dress and hair dishelveled…with him, quickly kissing the top of her head and telling her “Well this was fun,” and then looking away as he readjusted his shorts and saying, “I’ve gotta get home to the girlfriend.”

And how it was then that she realized he never once spoke her name…just called her “Babe”…

And there it was…though she had known his sudden silence…the silence that had provoked her and made her so desperate to return…the silence that she wanted to THIS TIME prevent…it was there…it was out…he had someone else in his life…

Melissa’s voice trail off as if that were the end of the story, but inside she knew it was not…she knew that that was only intermission…she did not audibly share how she sat in that apartment after he left and held herself…and forced the image of the encounter to morph into something far more serene…how she was determined NOT to have him categorized with the other men she had known…the ones who had taken money from her…and her virtue…those that made false promises just to see how far they could get down the field…

And how she, even then, despite what would have been regarded as a humiliating slap by others, felt her grateful heart growing again…loving him more, though it shouldn’t have…

Despite the months of warnings from others on what type of man he was, and all the routine similarities between his actions and those others…she knew she had to protect him…she needed him not to be that way…not with her… not him! please God, not him too!

And in her head the inaudible memory went on…

She remembered how Paul returned to her apartment hours later and took one look around and was certain she had betrayed him…how the rough man pinned her against the wall and struck her repeatedly and clenched her neck in his hands…screaming at her…declaring her a “WHORE” over and over in effort to get to the truth…a truth she knew…if revealed…would be his final excuse to kill her.

She also didn’t mention aloud the memory of sitting on a bench near a garden the following day… so scared and not knowing what to do with the taste of her own blood still fresh in her mouth… and how she looked up and felt a sudden flutter of excitement when she saw his truck drive by. How she couldn’t help but contact him… and how he genuinely seemed happy to hear from her…How he seemed surprised that she was in town as if he had no memory of the night they shared.  And despite her considerable concerns…how dangerous any further contact with him would be…Melissa agreed to a lunch, in public…a meeting she regarded as her second chance.

But it was a meeting that would never happen…until this very moment…

(And she knew there was far more to the story than even that…far more than he ever knew…)

But once her story finished  both in what was spoken and what was left to replay only in her head, she at last looked up at Aslan who appeared frozen much like a computer screen in need of rebooting. His mouth was slightly opened, but he spoke no words…he did not move. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hands she moved her folder beside her on the bench, stood up and watched his empty face again.

“I remember everything you’ve ever said to me. The stories of your first wife and how you hated how fat she got when she was pregnant to the point where I was concerned how you would regard me when I was pregnant. How you felt that your ex tricked you or trapped you when she got pregnant with Zach…of how you felt reluctantly obligated to her and how you sometimes doubted that the baby she carried was even yours…until Zach came out looking exactly like you…”

“I remember just weeks before Lilly was born, how you had told me that she and I would have to remain in hiding from the rest of your real life for at least a year. How you said, ‘Explaining us would be messy,’ and how you didn’t want me to go to court with you for Zach’s support hearing…I remember, on top of everything else that was going on, that feeling that you were honestly embarrassed by us…I didn’t want to be an embarrassment for you…that is NEVER what I wanted, but you kept sending me these huge clues that THAT was exactly what we were. Just like my mom…my whole life…I was something you never wanted anyone to see because I am…we are…something you were ashamed of.”

Looking directly at him… the words continued on apologetically, “Do you remember, right before Lilly was born, how you had asked me for $5000. You had wanted to go to Hawaii by yourself and wanted me to give you the money…and then later I admitted that I kept waiting for you to say something else…How I had told you that that secret waiting was like a game show all girls play with the men in their life whether they admit to it or not. Do you remember how I had wanted you to say ‘Let’s spend the money to get a vehicle, Tink, that will fit our whole family.’ But you didnt say that…you wanted to go to Hawaii at that moment when you knew it was too risky for me to travel with you. You wanted to go alone.”

“This is sort of like that…For a long time I had been waiting for you to remember. Waiting for some sign that I mattered enough FOR you to remember. I thought maybe if you heard my voice or saw me at the Oxford Deli that day that you would remember…but I never made it. And weeks later, when they ran that early pregnancy test on me in the ICU…and even later when they discovered I was pregnant with a girl…i had hoped  that THEN you would remember. But you told me to get rid of the baby…and I could never figure out if it was because you remembered and didnt want to be tethered to me like how you said you have to be stuck with Melissa for life because of  Zach…or if you were truly worried about my health…”

“I remember everything…all the sweet words…the promises…everything.”

Her voice became quiet again, “Of course I have no way of knowing either way…but the possibility…that tiny possibility of what might be true was all that got me through the rest of the horror of 2007… and when I had her.”

“I even convinced myself that that is why you wanted to be there when she was born…so you could see and be certain, like with Zach. But I came to realize it wasnt true at all. You never actually wanted to be there…it was just another line.”

She lowered her eyes once again, “Anyways… man can never be held accountable to something he doesn’t remember.”

And then she whispered (or thought she whispered), “You mean the world to me…Your happiness is everything to me…”

He still did not focus or move…and suddenly Melissa knew she was stripped and exposed again. Maybe he didn’t hear…he always said he listened, but quite often he didn’t actually hear what was said…maybe the story was too long and rambling to hold his interest or comprehension… perhaps, like so many other things, he simply lacked the interest or skill to connect the pieces together…not because he was illeducated, but rather because she was nothing…one pays no heed to a single, meaningless dust speck…

Melissa, visibly shaking, reached for her bag and scanned the play area for Lilly who she was certain had wandered off. But no, there she was, flipped curls and smiles, still atop the playground as if the encounter with Aslan had only taken a small moment in time instead of an eternity. 

Hurrying towards her daughter, Melissa called out her name in a voice that Lilly had been trained over the years to recognize as danger. And without hesitation, Lilly slid part-way down the slide and reached out towards her mother. Lilly wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and the two half-walked, half-ran towards the parking lot…with Melissa desperately attempting to shield her daughter from view.

If she had looked back, Melissa would have discovered him standing there still and she would have discovered the folder of work pages open and abandoned…the wind lifting page after page in a swirling dance and laying them before his feet…

 

everything exposed.

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