Kneeling on all fours in the early morning hours with a pungent smelling bucket of foamy water beside her, Julie dipped in her gloved hands and pulled out a sponge. Wringing it out and crawling part way into the cabinet, she began scouring the walls and floor.
There was really no need to clean under the sink, any more than there had been a need to clean the grout between the shower tiles yesterday. But she hadn’t slept in two nights, and the subsequent increase in coffee intake made her jittery. Cleaning kept her from thinking about Rick and the fact that he was free. The skin on her back crawled and her heart thumped wildly whenever she thought about the consequences.
After cleaning all the lower cupboards, she threw the sponge back in the bucket and leaned against a cabinet door. In her repose, she guided her thoughts to the only thing that calmed her.
Cole. Like a homing beacon, memories of him brought her mind back from the hell where it often wandered. Vanilla and sandalwood, the way his eyes warmed her from the inside out, the way he made her want to smile all the time kept her from spinning into uncontrollable waves of panic.
She jumped when her phone buzzed and groggily reached for it. She must’ve fallen asleep on the kitchen floor. It was a text from Cole. It took her a second to process whether she was dreaming or not. ‘Can’t wait to see you.’ She smiled and then looked at the time. With a gasp, she jumped up; she’d slept all day. She hurriedly prepared the pasta so that it could bake while she got ready for her date—dinner—with Cole.
Maybe her friends were right, maybe she should she call them dates, now.
Since the weather was unseasonably spring-like, she wore the dress that she had worn on her first date—dinner—with Cole. She pulled up the stubborn zipper and then moved to the bathroom to do her hair and make-up. Looking at herself in the mirror, she smiled. She wasn’t nervous. She and Cole always hung out. Tonight, was no different.
Except that it might be.
She hoped it would be.
No one will ever want you.
Her knees buckled and the contents of her make-up bag crashed onto the bathroom floor.
She pulled herself back up to standing and glared into the mirror.
Not this time. This was her night to start over, to be with someone who would make her happy. Rick couldn’t have her tonight. Being with Cole was the right thing for her and she would make the past with Rick go away so that she could move forward.
The buzzer sounded and with a final look in the mirror to dare her mind to torment her, she went to let him in.
Her heart flipped in her chest when she saw him step off the elevator. He had shaved off his beard, and he was sunburned, but he had never looked better. When he hugged her, she breathed in the light scent of his soap and was nearly dizzy from being near him.
“Whatcha got there?” she asked as he slid a fancy box into the fridge.
“It’s a surprise. No peeking.” He winked at her and her stomach flipflopped. “Can I help with anything?”
“Sure. There’s salad stuff in the fridge.”
She pulled the pasta out of the oven to add cheese and he stood next to her and deftly cut the salad ingredients.
His graceful motions mesmerized her. Long delicate fingers, the defined muscles of his forearms. She thought of what it was like to have his arms around her and wondered what it would feel like to have his hands gently caressing her face or trailing down her back. Could those hands slap her, punch her, strangle her? Could his arms hold her down against her will? It didn’t seem possible, but then, she had never thought Rick could hurt her, either.
She shook those thoughts out of her head. Tonight, she was moving on.
“Mm. This is so good,” he said later as they ate. “I like the Italian sausages that you used in this.”
“It’s a new recipe. I’m glad you like it.”
“I think date night should be here from now on. Who needs a restaurant?” The ease with which he spoke followed with him awkwardly mumbling an apology and looking down at his plate.
Julie wondered if he regretted saying it because he didn’t mean it or because he did. She was moving on though, so decided to be bold.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I think date night here is a great idea.” Her heart raced in her chest, hoping he caught her meaning.
After a few more stilted attempts at conversation, they silently cleared the table and sat stiffly on the couch, casting glances at each other. Maybe she had misread everything. Maybe the tension between them wasn’t mutual attraction but him wishing that he hadn’t come, that he had hung out with someone else tonight. He was probably thinking of an excuse to leave.
“I brought us a surprise for dessert.” He hopped up and grabbed the decorated box out of the fridge. “So there’s this new bakery a few blocks from my neighborhood. I saw these when I was running today and couldn’t resist.” He came back carrying a beautifully decorated round of cheesecake and two forks. “Here, let’s try it.” He handed her a bite. As she took the fork from him, her hand grazed his and shocks sparked all over her body.
“You’re right. Delicious. And,” as he took a second bite. “It’s the perfect serving size for a couple.”
The fork stopped in midair. Her breath caught. This couldn’t be happening. Sitting on the couch, her curtains fluttering in the warm breeze, having cheesecake with the man who made her feel beautiful and special. And he had just called them a couple. She took in a deep breath as she watched him stare at the cheesecake.
“Are we?” she whispered, hardly able to breathe. “A couple?” She hoped he said yes.
“Julie, I—” He stabbed the fork at the cheesecake. “I need—there’s something—”
Julie was only aware of the breeze caressing her skin, and his eyes falling into hers. She reached out and gently moved the shock of hair off his forehead and let her fingertips linger. Her lips met his in a gentle kiss that melted her insides.
“This changes everything, right?” he whispered when they parted.
“I really hope so.” She wanted to drown in him, get lost in something besides her crazy head.
His fingertips burned a trail across her skin, then worked into her hair and pulled her closer. Desire rose in her throat, twisted her middle, consumed everything she’d been fearing over the last two days. His lips met hers again and his arms surrounded her like the strong embrace of the wind.
Whirling, passionate oblivion.
You want him, Julie? Too bad, you’re mine, and he can’t have you.
She flung herself away from the arms that held her and called out against the pounding fists and assaulting words. Begging it to stop, promising to do things right the next time. When it was over, she drew her knees to her chest and lowered her head so that it rested on her knees. Shuddering. Whimpering. Praying for death.
The scent of sandalwood and vanilla wafted from somewhere. That didn’t belong here. She lifted her head to look around. Through the haze of memories, she saw Cole looking at her with a mix of confusion and concern.
Oh, no. What had just happened? She pressed her eyes into her knees. No, no, no! She’d completely come apart in front of him. Everything in her had wanted to move on with Cole. Hadn’t she resolved on that? Put the past aside and be happy in a new life.
But the past had a cruel way of wanting to be her present.
She should send him away. It was evident that she shouldn’t be with him, couldn’t be with anybody again even though she wanted to. She was a freak. The memories found her everywhere.
“I’m sorry, Julie. I shouldn’t—I should maybe go,” he mumbled.
Her insides quaked when she turned and saw the look on his face. She couldn’t let him think that this was his fault. Even though when she told him the truth, it would scare him away, she forced herself, despite the memory screaming in her head, to reach for him as he stood. “Please stay.” Now what? How could she explain? She couldn’t possibly say it out loud—”I-I need you to know something.”
She slowly turned from him as she tugged the dress’ zipper further down. Drawing a deep breath, she braced herself for his reaction as she pulled the straps off her shoulders, exposing her entire back. She remembered her mother’s brave attempts to hide her horror when she first saw them and Amy’s disgust when she saw them in the dressing room last year. Now Cole would be able to see the pinkish stripes that snaked across her back.
He would see that she was ugly.
There was a sharp intake of breath. Next would be stammering excuses to leave and then she would never hear from him again. Instead, she felt him scoot closer to her and gently run his fingers along the scars. His touch spread healing warmth across her skin, and every nerve in her body felt like fire. It was too much; she pulled the dress back over her shoulder. Afraid of what she would see in his eyes, she kept her face from him.
“They’re from him, aren’t they?” he asked softly, his hands still resting on her back.
He stood abruptly and walked over to the sliding glass doors where the last light of sunset peered over the horizon. Rick’s voice taunted her from the past, laughing at her. No one else will ever want you. With trembling fingers, Julie tried to zip up the dress as panic mounted, but the damn zipper was stuck. Instead, she focused on the view outside the window. The sunset reflected what was happening to her. Hopes for a normal relationship with Cole were disappearing. She knew what would come next. Cole wouldn’t want her.
“He—he used to hurt you?” His back to her as he faced the darkening landscape.
“Oh, my god,” an anguished whisper as he leaned his head against the door frame.
“Well, I made him mad.” She saw him turn sharply to look at her, but he didn’t speak. His tearful eyes bored into hers. She averted her gaze and wrung her hands. “He didn’t like things I did or didn’t do, so I deserved it.” It was simple, really. Had she done things differently, tried harder, said the right things, been prettier, then he would have treated her better.
“You really believe that?”
The truth stuck in her throat.
“You didn’t deserve to get beaten up.”
“I-I used to be strong. I did,” begging Cole to understand. “The first time he shoved me, I thought he was just messing around like when we were kids playing in the yard. When he hit me for the first time, I told myself that if he ever did it again, I would leave.
“He kept apologizing, promising to get help. But I always did stuff to make him mad. I didn’t know what to do or what to believe. Maybe I should’ve fought back. I don’t know…I didn’t know what was real or whose fault it was. It was just tired. So tired.”
He turned away again and cleared his throat. “How’d you finally get away?”
“There was an—an accident—. He was arrested when I was in the hospital. I had to go through a whole bunch of legal stuff. I don’t understand it—the lawyer handled it all—so that I could dissolve the marriage. So, it’s over.”
“It’s not really over though, is it? Rick’s in your head, isn’t he?”
Dread boiled inside her. Cole knew she had been thinking of another man when they were together. How many times had Rick hit her just for the suspicion of it? The emotions churning around inside of her made her want to throw up. Everything was wrong with her, and she had been naive to think that things could be any better. She stood, forgetting that her dress was still unzipped, and it nearly fell off. She hated it right now as she held it to her chest. Tears sprang into her eyes. Stupid Julie, a penitent little girl standing before him. Guilty. Shameful. Anything but beautiful and desirable.
A frightened whisper escaped from her lips as he walked away from the doors. “I’m sorry. I don’t want it to happen.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, she tensed her shoulders to prepare her body for the blows that would come next. The hot tears that she had been holding in spilled over her cheeks as Cole’s hands unexpectedly moved her hair gently over her shoulder and zipped up the dress for her. Those same hands rubbed her back and then rested on her shoulders as he placed a kiss on her hair.
Leaning into him, feeling his heartbeat against her body, his warmth and strength. She wanted to fall back into him and forget, except that she couldn’t. In this moment, she wished she had loved Cole first. Before, the scars had been carved into her body and the darkness had settled into her heart and the voices intruded in her head.
“Is that why you withdraw sometimes? You do that when he’s in your head?”
“Like you want to right now?” His voice was soft as though it could lull her into a peaceful sleep.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Wait.” He walked around her so that he could look at her. He smoothed her hair with his hands and looked deeply into her eyes. “Do you think I’m mad at you? That I blame you?”
“I ruined our night.”
“Why? Because you trust me enough to tell me about this? To confide in me. I can’t think of anything more intimate.”
She couldn’t figure out a response to that, so chose silence instead. Pulling away from him, she sat hard on the couch as he walked away and returned with a wad of toilet paper. “You’re a funny woman, Julie. You color coordinate the clothes in your closet but not a tissue in sight.” He smiled at her as he dabbed at her face with it. “I’m sorry that you went through that. I wish—.”
“That I didn’t have ugly scars.” She took the toilet paper from him and looked at her lap.
“That you’d never been hurt like that.”
“I’m sorry, Cole. They’re so ugly. They make me ugly, too. You-you don’t have to be with me.”
“You’re not ugly. And I want to be with you.”
“Why would you ever want to me with me?”
“The same reason you want to be with me.”
She looked up at him through her blurry eyes. He couldn’t mean that he loved her. But then she thought of their friendship, of their past months together, and she knew explicitly that he did. So, when he pulled her toward him, she let him hold her, though tension still sat in her belly like a rock.
“You’re brave and strong. You don’t know it yet, but you are,” he whispered into her hair.
He wouldn’t still think of her that way if he knew how she used to cower in the bedroom, dreading Rick’s return home. How she chose to work the night shift at the hospital so that she didn’t have to be home alone at night, and when she was, still slept with the lights on.
Panic rose in his nearness to her, but she stuffed it down as far as she could. She allowed his gentle touches, his fingers in her hair. Nestling her head on his shoulder and resting her hand over his heart, she tried not to think about the past, to feel safe and cherished in this place and time.
But it was hard because his voice wasn’t the only one she heard.
Cathy resides in Nebraska with her family. She loves to read stories and novels in a variety of genres. From a young age, she enjoyed writing but chose to pursue a career in geriatrics. She has worked with the geriatric population in a variety of roles for over twenty years. Recently, her love of writing re-emerged, and she has had the good fortune of having her short stories appear in Ariel Chart and Adelaide. Her traditional writing style explores the human capacity to reclaim our lives after difficult experiences.