Catch up here.
Dead roses are at my door after returning home from work. I trudge back down the hall with them and toss them in the trash chute. I return to my studio then collapse lying supine on the folded up futon and throw my arm over my eyes. My chest flutters and lurches.
Breathe. In. One. Slow. Out. Two. Three. Four. Fucking Lance! Concentrate, finals are in four weeks! Why can’t he just leave me alone? Finals are coming. Damn him! FOCUS, ARI! BREATHE!
Tears brim as the phone rings. I remain still as the answering machine does its job.
“It’s me, babes. Pick up.”
I desperately rush for the phone and shut off the machine. “Hey,” I answer somberly and wipe the tears away.
“What’s wrong?” he asks worried.
“Lance.” Then I blurt out, “I’m going back with you.”
“Yes!” he exclaims ecstatically. “I’ll be home soon,” he adds happily.
“Not soon enough,” I respond dismally.
“Babes, this is hard for me, too. I want to be with you and I’m stuck here.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not dealing with this very well right now. There’s too much going on between Lance, school, and work. I feel like walls are closing in on me,” I state overwhelmed.
“Start packing. That might distract you.”
“Shit. I’m going to need to find a storage locker.”
What was I thinking? Going to D.C. will mean more work right now.
“We’ll take it to my dad’s,” he says like it is a no-brainer.
“Would he mind?”
He chuckles. “You could ask him to fly you to the moon and he’d do his damnedest to try.”
Clicking comes through the receiver. “Hang on a sec.” I tap the release button to answer the other line and my heart skips.
Dammit. You should’ve let it go.
“Hello?” I answer tentatively.
“Howzit, Sistah!” Brad greets.
“Oh, thank God it’s you,” I say relieved.
“Dead flowers. I’m on the other line with J.D. and wasn’t thinking. Can I call you back?”
“I just called to see if you want to meet us at Mama’s in an hour.”
I click back to J.D. “Sorry, baby. It was Brad. I’m meeting them at Mama’s.”
“Have them come get you.”
“It’s right around the corner.”
“And Lance is stalking you. I’d feel much better if the guys walked you there.”
“I’ll be fine,” I declare.
“Fine,” he says huffily, “I’ll call them myself since we keep having the same argument about your safety.”
“Baby, be reasonable.”
“I am. He has you scared out of your wits,” he states matter-of-factly.
“I’m not scared, just tired.”
“How many nightmares have you had in the last week?” he asks pointedly.
“Every night,” I answer subdued. He already knew the answer.
“Please call Brad and have them walk with you,” he implores.
“Okay,” I concede.
“And you can’t be brazen about walking alone at night like you were when we met. This is different.”
“Are you done with the lecture?” I ask indignantly.
“Are you going to play it safe?” he fires back.
We’re quiet for a moment.
“I love you, baby.”
“I love you more.”
I turn on the stereo and hit play on the tape player after hanging up.
Don’t think sorry’s easily said
Don’t try, turnin’ tables instead
You’ve taken lots of chances before
But I ain’t gonna give anymore
I hug Brad hard in the lobby.
“Are you okay?” he asks as we walk. “J.D. was pretty upset when he called.”
What does he think he’s doing?
“He said he wouldn’t,” I say disappointed.
“He’s really worried about you, Ari. We all are,” he says lovingly.
I press my lips together.
Don’t take your anger out on him. He’s worried because he loves you and he’s not here.
“Lance has me unnerved,” I admit.
“Change your number already. We’ve been telling you that all semester.”
“I won’t need to. I decided to go to back with J.D. until grad school.”
“I’ll miss you.” He wraps his arm around me and pulls me close as we walk.
I slip my arm around him. “I’ll miss you, too.”
We walk through the entry at Mama’s and join Patrick at an outdoor table. A pitcher and mugs are waiting for us.
“Does J.D. know you’re cheating on him?”
I startle and spin in my seat. Lance looks disturbingly pleased as he approaches the table. My nerve endings tingle all at once. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I saw you two come in with your arms around each other.” His lips spread into a cruel grin.
I reach for my mug but my hands are shaking. I wring my hands together in my lap and hunch my shoulders. Tears burn as they rush to the surface. “Go away, Lance,” I mutter then rest my elbows on the table and interlace my fingers in front of my face.
“It’s a public place. I don’t have to leave,” he says haughtily with a maniacal gleam in his eyes.
I open up my hands and drop my forehead on the heels of my palms.
Breathe. In. Out.
He sits down in the empty seat to my left and sets his hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” I shriek jumping out my chair to the right and knocking it over then balling up my fists at my side. “Don’t touch me! Don’ttouchmedon’ttouchmedon’ttouchme!”
Plastic screeches against concrete as Patrick and Brad leave their seats and move to either side of me. Tears stream down my face. Two male servers run out to the table followed by the bouncer that just arrived for his shift.
“What’s going on?” the burly bouncer asks.
I’m frozen in place, tears streaming down my face, chin trembling.
Brad points to Lance. “He’s harassing my friend.”
“Stalking’s more like it,” Patrick quips.
The bouncer observes me for a moment. “Let’s go, bruddah.” He gestures to Lance.
Lance rises slowly and walks to the entry with the bouncer close behind. He turns his head before walking behind the fence and winks at me with a smug smile.
My strength rushes out of me and I collapse to the ground curled up on my right side, sobbing and shaking. Patrick and Brad crouch down and lift me to a sitting position. Brad envelops me in his arms and Patrick rubs my back.
“I can’t take it anymore,” I bawl.
“He wants to wear you down,” he reminds me. “You’re strong, Ari. Remember that.”
“No, I’m not,” I whimper.
“Hey, you made it through worse four years ago without telling anyone. You have us to lean on,” he says devotedly then crushes me in his arms. “Come on. Dinner is here.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re eating,” he says overbearingly. “I’m not going to watch you do this again.”
“Watch me do what?”
“I’m not depressed again,” I insist.
“I remember the signs, Ari,” he says severely.
“You’re conspiring with J.D.” I narrow my eyes at him.
“Damn straight,” Patrick states, righting my chair then helping me up.
I feel settled with food in my stomach and I allow myself to relax knowing Lance can’t get back in. George and Mundo join us later for a few pitchers. They all walk me home and make sure Lance didn’t break in.
I fall asleep listening to The Alan Parsons Project.
Let’s talk about me for a minute
Well how do you think
I feel about what’s been going on
I spend a blissful week on the guys’ sofa during finals with no reminders of Lance around. I return to my place after my last day of work on Friday to four bouquets at my door and dozens of calls with dead air on the answering machine.
I take a measured breath then pick up the phone and punch seven numbers with my thumb.
“Hi, Rick. It’s Ari,” I greet plainly.
“Hi, Ari. How are you doing?” he asked animated.
“A little unsettled right now. Can I ask a favor?” I ask tentatively.
“Anything. You know that.”
“Can I spend the night? I’ve been with friends all week and I came home to more flowers just now.”
“I’ll come get you as soon as we hang up. We can do the grocery shopping for tomorrow. I haven’t been to the store yet for the rest of your list.”
“Thanks, Rick. See you soon.”
My heart quickens as J.D. steps through the boarding door with a smile covering his face. We rush to each other and he drops his duffle bag as we collide. I throw my arms around his neck and he wraps his arms around my waist, pressing me in tight then lifting me off the ground. The tautness in my body carried the last few months melts away in his embrace. He slowly lowers me down when I loosen my grip and turns to Rick with his arms open. They thwack each other on the back three times before letting go.
“Welcome home, Jack,” he greets smiling.
“Thanks, Dad.” J.D. intertwines his fingers into mine.
“I hope you’re hungry. Ari cooked a feast.”
J.D. looks at me puzzled.
“Early Christmas dinner with your dad since we’re going to your mom’s for Christmas,” I enlighten him. “The turkey should be done by the time we get you home.”
Rick picks up J.D.’s bag and heads for baggage claim.
“I was going to go shopping next week,” J.D. says under his breath.
“I’ve got you covered.” I squeeze his hand.
“You’re the best.” He squeezes back.
“Don’t you forget it.”
“It would be like forgetting to breathe.” He kisses the top of my head.
I finish preparing the food while J.D. and Rick decorate their Christmas tree. We sit on the living room floor cross-legged next to the tree after dinner. Rick hands us each a small rectangular package wrapped in plain green paper with a red pre-made bow.
“Rick, you didn’t have to,” I say stunned.
“I know. I needed to,” he declares.
We tear open the wrapping and find matching Mont Blanc pens.
“No, don’t say it,” Rick interrupts. “You put up with a lot from me over the years, Jack. I can’t undo it and I know I can’t buy forgiveness. It’s a token of my thanks and my love. I hope you remember that when you use it at work.”
“Thanks, Rick. I’ll remember that every time I use mine.”
J.D. leans over and pulls Rick into a bear hug. “I love you, Dad.”
“Your mom and I are talking again,” he says nervously.
“Really?” J.D. asks surprised.
“We didn’t want to get your hopes up.”
“I’m happy for you, Dad,” J.D. claps his shoulder.
“Thanks, Jack.” A hint of pink crosses Rick’s cheeks.
“Have you talked to Tommy yet?”
“I’m flying to New York next month to see him. I’m guessing you or your mother put in a good word for me.”
J.D. barely shrugs his shoulders and tips his head to the side. “Maybe both.”
I reach under the tree for Rick’s present and pass it to him. He rips off the wrapping paper and drops his jaw.
“I didn’t know this existed,” he says in awe running his hand over The Complete Studio Recordings for Led Zeppelin.
“It came out in September.”
“Thank you!” He reaches out and hugs us both tight.
“Good job, babes,” J.D. whispers while Rick shreds through the shrink wrap.
“Did you have any doubt?”
“I’ve learned not to doubt you.” He wraps his arm around my shoulder and draws me into him.
I inhale his musky essence as if preparing for another long separation. Then, I close my eyes and enjoy the idyllic moment of being in his arms again.
©Debi Smith, 2013