I had successfully made it through another weekend without a slice and was feeling pretty good about it. I tried to forget the fact that I was moments away from it when Mitzi called me and distracted me, and I chose to overlook the fact that the only reason I hadn’t cut Sunday after the whole “You belong to God” talk was because I chose instead to take my frustrations out on Betsy who had the nerve to tell me that I should have let her know before I took her sister home! Like she even knew Mitzi was missing until she got my call because her pale skin and sunglasses surely didn’t indicate a hangover at all! It took Mitzi crying to stop me from tearing out every last strand of hair from her head! Why we had ever been friends, I would never know! No other reason than she was connected to her sister.
I decided to treat myself to some time at the spa and was just grabbing my keys off the counter when my mom confronted me.
I sighed. Here we go.
“You know that’s stupid, right? All it takes is one episode and you are off the road. You could kill someone. Have you considered that?”
I tried to ignore her.
“Poor Charles,” she sounded so pathetic.
“Okay, mom. I’ll bite.” I turned around ready to hear her rant.
“I guess since you are so independent now and driving on your own, we can just let him go.”
I put my keys back on the counter and dropped my purse, “Seriously?”
“Well, why do we need a driver if you are just gonna drive no matter what?”
She was referring to my seizures as a child. When I turned sixteen, I was unable to get my license. You have to be four years seizure free before you can be cleared to drive, and I had had a small seizure when I was thirteen, brought on by a high fever, but with my history the doctor wouldn’t take any chances, so I was placed back on medication. Sixteen with a car and no license. Pathetic reality of my life to keep up the pretenses of a perfect life. Of course I had a car as it was a rich kid’s rite of passage and a social statement for the family. So, I unwrapped my keys and took the obligatory pictures on my birthday to play the part, only to face cold hard reality the next morning. I couldn’t actually drive. It was the most humiliating moment of my life as a teen that we played off in true Stuckey fashion. After all, perfect people don’t have a daughter with seizures. We hired a driver. We were rich enough so the narrative became that to drive was beneath me. The positive thing about it was Charles, my driver, became like a father figure. It was nice to have someone care where I was, pick me up when I was too drunk to make it home safely with my equally drunk friends, and to question me when I didn’t call for a ride. He became my mother’s crutch as well, the perfect alibi and enabler for her adulterous and drunken activities. I would not let her cast him aside so easily!
I called her bluff, “Well, let’s see, mom…maybe it is so that he can pick you up when you are so drunk you can’t see straight? Or, I know, the morning after when you wake up in a stranger’s bed and can’t find your way home!”
That’s when I saw it, the anger, the rage, and the desire to slap me. She raised her hand. I braced myself, almost excited, for the feel of her hand on my face. It sounds strange, but I had lived for this moment. All our arguments were intended to provoke her to this point. It was like waiting for your first kiss, only my lips weren’t tingling, my cheek was flushed and expectant. “Do it!” My soul seemed to scream! In dejected disbelief, I was forced to watch her drop her raised hand, shake her head at me, and walk away, the sting of her words not spoken, echoing behind her, “You’re not worth it.”
I stood there feeling invisible. My mouth was most likely open and tears threatened to fall, pooling up in my unfocused eyes. Rejection is ten times better than neglect. I’d rather someone punch me in my face and tell me they hate me than to pretend like I don’t exist. I can understand why some kids don’t rat their parents out for abuse. As crazy as it sounds, a hit is still connection. What my mom did and how I felt, hurt worse than any slice I’d ever made.
I yelled at her retreating back, “This life SUCKS!” No response. Typical.
I grabbed the keys from where I laid them, jerked up my purse, and slammed the door behind me. I was furious! I screamed at no one and at everyone, “Screw this! Screw yoooouuuuu!” I bit back the tears. Not here. Not now. She would not see that she could make me cry!
I screeched out of the drive and sped away. There was only one place in the world where I could ever think, one place in the world that made me feel like I wasn’t living in a prison of anger and pride. In this one place, I could pretend that I was a kid again and that life didn’t completely suck. The park.
I drove up, parked the car, and sat there a minute. Composing myself. It didn’t make sense, but it was ingrained. You pretty yourself up before you step out of your car. You hold your head high, you pretend that you are wonderful, and you smile at anyone that passes you. That’s being a lady…or so she always told me. I grabbed my sunglasses and headed toward the swings.
I had just released my feet from the ground when I saw Robbie walk up. What luck. He always seemed to find me at my most vulnerable moments. I pretended like I didn’t see him, but, he never approached the swings. He kept walking over to the picnic table and turned his back to me.
“Figures,” I thought. “I’m invisible.”
I watched him as he sat there. He ran his hand through his hair like he was frustrated. He stood up, talked to himself, and sat back down again. I had stopped swinging in case it might draw his attention. It was far more interesting to watch him. It occurred to me again how handsome he was. I wished I were closer. I wanted to hear what had him so upset.
I was looking at him, almost willing him to turn around, when he did. He seemed startled at first but raised his hand in a wave, there was no smile. I politely returned the gesture. He grinned slightly and kept eye contact. I got up from my swing and walked closer, looking for some movement from him to indicate his disinterest. It never came, so I kept approaching. He motioned to the bench beside him.
I sat. It was a bit of an awkward moment. I wasn’t going to speak, and he didn’t speak. It was just the two of us and the sound of the birds and the bees. I looked at my nails.
“So,” he started and paused.
I looked up and waited.
I blushed remembering Mitzi’s bumbling the other day and mumbled a yes.
“I worry about you, you know?” He batted an insect away from my hair. I didn’t know what to say. “Does that surprise you?”
I smirked, “You have no idea…”
“You seem to be so convinced of that, but it is really you that has no idea.”
He wasn’t argumentative. I let it go.
“Do you think about me?” he asked then laughed nervously.
“Yes,” I admitted. For some reason, I couldn’t pretend with him.
He looked at me, his big brown eyes, almost teary. “The me that I am or the me that I was?”
I didn’t understand his question. “Aren’t they the same?” I asked.
“No,” he answered.
I felt awkward. I didn’t know why he kept exposing himself to me. I couldn’t do anything for him. I was invisible…and yet, obviously, he saw something in me that he could open up to. It was ridiculous. Who was I?
“I’m sorry you didn’t know me before,” he continued.
His apology was weighted with remorse. I could feel his disappointment. I tried to understand, “Before you joined the military or before your injury?”
He stood up, frustrated again, “What’s the difference? One led to the other.”
I felt bad, I had hurt him without intending to. “I’m sorry, I just…”
He sat back down and grabbed my hand, his grip was strong but not controlling, “Oona… My whole life is different!”
I raised my eyes to his, seeing his pain, and asked, “What has changed? You still have your family that loves you, a sister that adores you and a soon to be stepfather who is eager to call you son, not to mention a real father who is so excited to be back in your life!”
He grinned, “Sweet ignorant, Oona.”
I drew my hand back. His words slapped me. How dare he speak down to me like I didn’t know anything?!
He must have felt my offense, “I didn’t mean…I just meant…” he stumbled his words and grabbed my hand again, “It’s not what it was, and I…” He paused, letting go of my hand again abruptly, seeming to seek for the right words. “Nothing is the same. Not at home. Not in my head. Not with my family even. I was the caretaker, the protector, the man of the house. I know it sounds stupid, but I have none of those roles anymore! It’s nobody’s fault, but still. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do? I don’t sleep at night, because I don’t trust the dreams that form. My nightmares are actually pictures of reality. Nothing can prepare you for combat.” He brushed his hand through his hair and pulled, “I wonder if I can ever forget? I can’t keep living like this, and yet there is no distraction. Nothing I can do to replace what I did. And, this thing,” he said pointing at his leg, “keeps me from getting a job. What can I do hobbling around?”
I offered a suggestion, “Maybe you could work at an office?”
He laughed, “Yeah. Me in an office…sorry, darlin’, but I don’t see it. What would I do anyway? Be a receptionist? I couldn’t care less about data entry or answering phones, though I might could pull off a skirt.” He winked playfully.
I laughed, “Perhaps you aren’t the office type.”
He got serious again, “Where do I fit in? I mean, I know God has a plan for me and that He hasn’t abandoned me, but sometimes it’s like I’m…” He didn’t finish. He just stood there. Waiting for the words to come.
I waited with him, seeing the hurt and the conflict on his face, wondering perhaps whether he should say it, seeming to wrestle through his thoughts.
Finally, he raised his eyes to mine, “I’m invisible.”
I didn’t see how he could think it, but I couldn’t deny the pain of that feeling. I knew exactly the hurt that he just expressed. Just because I didn’t understand how it could be true for him didn’t mean that it wasn’t very real. I sympathized with him, and stroked his hand. I couldn’t speak it, but I wanted to communicate somehow that he was not alone.
“I probably seem pathetic to you, huh?” he sighed and sat back down.
I smiled, “No. Just… very, very familiar.”
“Is that good?”
I smiled again, and admitted, “In my world it is.”
He reached up and brushed a piece of hair from my cheek, for the smallest moment I thought he might kiss me, but instead he just cupped my cheek and asked, “Can I be apart of your world?”
Regretfully, I thought of Liam just then. He was the only other one to cup my cheek like that, and yet their intentions felt so different. Robbie’s touch was caring and compassionate, but Liam’s touch felt possessive and seductive. The realization startled me. I couldn’t process what I was thinking and what Robbie was asking me, and I shook my head, which he took as my answer.
He withdrew his hand and apologized, “I’m sorry. You didn’t ask for that. I never want you to feel uncomfortable.” He smiled weakly, “Forgive me?”
He had no idea. Completely foreign to my nature, I reached up and placed my hand on his chest, “Nothing to forgive.”
He smiled and looked at my hand and then into my eyes, “Funny how very visible you make me feel.”
I blushed and grinned, “I was just thinking the very same.”
He cleared his throat, “So, what has you out here?”
I dropped my hand, realizing it was still resting on his chest, and realizing just how broad and strong he felt underneath it. “Oh, just thinking.” I didn’t want to get into my issues. He didn’t have to hear my mama drama; I wouldn’t want to if I were him.
He cocked his head, “I don’t believe you.”
I flashed my eyes at him, “Why would I lie?”
He smiled, “I didn’t say you lied, just that I don’t believe you.”
I huffed, “What kind of sense does that make?”
“Hey now, I’m not trying to upset you,” he soothed. “I am just asking you to share. You said you were thinking, but there is no such thing as just thinking. I guess what I’m trying to say and not very well is, what were you thinking about?”
I let my defenses down a little. He wasn’t trying to fight. He didn’t seem as if he were looking to upset me or to hurt me. I could see in his eyes, as engaging as they were, that he was concerned. My thoughts mattered to him. It was a rare thing, and I was afraid.
“What are you scared of?” His question caught me off guard.
“Scared?” It’s like he snatched the thought right out of my head.
“You had that look.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Not only did he care about my thoughts, but he was also reading my expressions. And he was right. I started to feel the discomfort of intimacy and vulnerability and pushed on the table to get up, “I…I just don’t know if I should be here.”
He drew away, “Why? What did I say?”
I looked at him very aware of the two sides of me, one half-longing to tell him everything – to share my hurt and my pain and my dreams, but the other half of me was scared. It was that half of me that spoke up, “I’m not that girl, you know?”
He looked confused, “I’m sorry?”
“I’m not looking for a hero. I don’t need your pity or your seduction. “
He stopped me, “Seduction?!”
I turned red which just made me more uncomfortable and defensive. I spoke before I could cry, “I can see right past your charming good looks, Robbie Cooper!”
He looked upset and confused, “I don’t think you …”
With my soul, I beckoned him closer. I would prove my point. I would stand my ground. The fire in my eyes burned as I watched him clench his jaw. I waited as he searched to finish his sentence, preparing an arsenal of retaliation in my brain.
He stopped and took a deep breath, “Okay, Oona, have it your way.” He got up and looked like he was about to leave. Then he turned to look at me, “I’m not fooled, and I’m not fooling you. But, I can’t convince you of that with words. You don’t trust words. I’ll just have to show you, in a million different ways, that regardless of what you have been taught to believe, good guys do exist.”
I was speechless, again battling the two sides of myself – the side of me that wanted to run after him and tell him everything, and the side of me that knew that it didn’t matter if he was a good guy. That wasn’t the point. Good guys didn’t fall for girls like me. I watched him walk away from me feeling invisible again. The second time in two hours that I was denied a fight. And the whisper echoed, “You’re not worth it.”
When I got back to my car, I noticed I’d missed some texts from Mitzi and Zella and a call from Liam. I wasn’t in the mood for any of them, but I felt like I needed to call Liam since I had been avoiding him lately. And I owed him a date, didn’t I? I hesitated just a minute before I called, but I pushed it aside. The truth is, no matter that he was considered a pastor, something told me he was more like me than Robbie. I knew there was something he was hiding, a mask he seemed to wear like mine. Weren’t we all hiding something.
He picked up the phone almost as soon as I heard the first ring, “Oona, love!”
I hated it when he called me that, when anyone called me that. My father’s voice popped into my head when I heard it which should have meant something, and I pushed through, “Hi, Liam.”
He laughed, “I was wondering when you would get around to calling me back.”
The snark surfaced, “Oh yeah, I notice it’s been a whole ten minutes, surprised you didn’t call and file a missing person’s report.”
I heard him smirk, “Cheeky, aren’t you?”
I smirked right back, “Only to the lesser intelligent.”
“Hey!” he argued playfully, “What are you saying? You don’t think I’m smart?”
I admitted, “I didn’t say you weren’t smart. I have no doubt that you know a lot.”
There was a pause, “So are you ever going to take me up on that date?”
I laughed, “Such a gentleman! You must really sweep the girls up off their feet.”
He wasn’t deterred, “Is that a yes?”
I laughed again, “Was that a request?”
He sounded slightly frustrated, “Listen, we can play these childish games all day. I asked you for a date. I’m not gonna wait around. The answer is either yes or no.”
My first response wasn’t church friendly.
“Wow,” he pretended surprise. “You get what you give, Oona…you know this.”
My eyes widened and my anger built up, “Fine. You want a date? You have it. Tomorrow at eight and I’ll meet you.”
“A gentleman picks up his dates,” he offered.
“I repeat. I will meet you.”
“At the church, like before, when you stood me up?” He tried to be funny, but I wasn’t in the mood.
“The church. I will be there at eight.”
He hesitated, “I have never met anyone like you. This will be interesting.”
You know that feeling you get when you know intrinsically that you should be listening closely and paying attention. Here is a word of advice: Pay attention to that feeling. It’s most likely the only warning you’ll get.