She didn’t know what she was doing, not really. She kept telling herself that this was the man who had broken her heart, but the rest of her body didn’t care. Bruises and emotions didn’t operate on the same level, and she had long since accepted the fact that her vulnerabilities were showing. Rather than flinch away from him, she was moving closer to take the chicken off his hands. “I got you into this,” she reminded him as she let her hand feel out the bruise. He gasped but didn’t move away from her.
“I’m not sure I’d brag about that,” he pointed out, though the sight of her body so close to him brought a cloud of distraction to his eyes.
She decided to let her body sink down on his lap as she draped her forearms against his shoulders. “You’ve stayed away for years, given me my distance. I’ve had a life that you don’t even know about. I’ve never had a problem that I couldn’t tackle because I know what it’s like to be alone. Truly alone. Somehow you gave me that. I don’t want to thank you for that, but it is what it is.”
Of course he was confused by the mixed signals, his pain and her words and the closeness of her body. They were words she’d rolled around in her head for years, considering how she might treat him if their paths had ever crossed again. Somehow her script didn’t get the response she wanted, so she just had to laugh. “I can draw a bath. I think you might catch something off that chicken if you let it thaw too long.”
“If you say so.” There was doubt in Gordon’s features, but he mercifully didn’t demand to go to the hospital instead. When he slowly coaxed off his t-shirt, his bruised side looked much more swollen than his untouched right side. He looked down at himself, then sneered and looked back at Lizzie. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
She thought it was unfair that he should suffer on her behalf. He was a scrawny musician, a lover rather a fighter. She hadn’t asked him to take the beating, and she hadn’t cowered behind him either. “I don’t care what other people think,” she said.
“I don’t either.”
“Well, if that’s how you feel, then you need to take off your clothes.” She saw the surprise on his face and laughed. “I’ll give you a towel, don’t worry. You don’t have clean clothes here, and I’m not letting you stay if you get into the bath fully clothed and then drip everywhere.”
He didn’t understand the request, not really, but he stripped down regardless. T-shirt was discarded, shoes and socks were pushed aside together, and jeans and pants were boxers aside. Gordon was grateful the moment he received the towel from Lizzie. With body and ego limping, he couldn’t have worn the cotton blend with more pride he had been swathed in silk.
“Let me just get the water ready for you,” she told him, but there was part of her that hoped he might take her words for an invitation. She leaned over the tub and adjusted the temperature until it was warm enough for someone to soak in without worrying about how hot it was. As though anticipating some fit of modesty, she found a bottle of bubble bath and spread it throughout the water. She could remember a time when he’d probably tease her for going through these motions, but she pushed that out of her mind. Part of her wanted to sink into the froth with him, to remember when they weren’t so fractured and confused about how to speak to each other. She didn’t know how to be anyone but his lover, not really.
“You may as well go while the water’s still warm,” she entreated him. She tried not to look at his body beyond the bruising. He was still remarkably slim for his height, and she was certain that he was more toned than he had ever been when they were a couple.
“We still haven’t had much of our talk. Not really,” he reminded her, which brought a blush to her cheeks. It seemed petty to revisit the past when the present was so fraught with tension, as she had in her mind so many times as she had tried to suss out exactly how she felt about him. She knew he was stepping into the tub the minute he groaned, but she kept her eyes on the tiles of the floor until there was a splash and he sank down. “Please stay. I might drown if I can’t get myself out of this tub.”
Even through the guilt, she laughed at him. The bathroom light was harsh, the way she liked it to better pick out all of her flaws and signs of aging. It brought out the hollowness of his cheeks and the sharp lines of his frame. Grey hairs kissed at his temples, and he had let his curls go shaggy. The years that stood between them had never been clearer. “You should’ve settled down by now,” she told him, quietly critical.
“Yeah, well, who wants to date a man who’s not even home most of the time?”
“A rock star,” she chided.
“A rock star,” he repeated, his tone mocking. “I don’t wear leather pants. I don’t have a six pack or a legendary tongue. I’m not covered in badass tattoos. I don’t even have traditional good looks. So what about me is rock star enough to make up for the fact that I’m probably on the way down rather than up?”
“You’re handsome,” she protested. “You just have to get your priorities straight. What you do isn’t going to last forever. Don’t you want to have someone to come home to?”
He smiled and let himself sink into the bubbles a bit more. He was too tall for the tub anyway, and his knees stuck up jaggedly above the waterline. “I used to have someone to come home to. But I fucked that up, and I guess I’m not very good at keeping that. I don’t know if it’s because I intrinsically believe I don’t deserve it or if I just don’t want to keep someone tied down to an unrealistic existence. Who wants to be one of those sailors’ wives, standing on the shore and looking out for the ships to come home?”
“A woman who’s in love with a sailor,” she pointed out. She saw that he still had the capacity to pity himself the same as ever, but there was something more to it. He wasn’t speaking sadly, just matter-of-factly. It was as though he had wedded his loneliness long ago.
Swallowing down her pride, she leaned over to brush the humid curls from his forehead. Just as soft as ever. “I forgave you a long time ago, Gordon.”
If he’d wanted to keep his response subtle, the water ruined that plan. He splashed about as he turned his torso to face her in spite of the pain that it so obviously caused him. “Why?”
“You were young. I was even younger. We were trying to find our way in the world, and sometimes we just do bad things. You were the first person I ever loved. The first person to really break my heart. But we weren’t really working with each other. Every time you left, I had to build myself up and tell myself that I could be okay without you. Then you’d come back, and I’d resent you for throwing everything off in my little world. I put up walls so you couldn’t fuck up what I’d worked so hard to create for myself. We didn’t connect anymore, but I couldn’t talk to you about it because you were working so hard and finally getting somewhere. What was I compared to that?”
He pressed his lips together in a firm line, searching for an answer. “You were the girl I loved.”
“Sometimes you can’t love a person enough to avoid the bad stuff. We were drifting apart. Something was going to happen to us along the way. I was just a silly girl and thought that I could meet the love of my life when I was a teenager.”
“I don’t think that’s silly.”
“Of course you don’t. I’m the girl who got away for you. I’m the one who can inspire you to write all these songs of longing. As long as I’m not a real person to you anymore, I can be anything you want me to be. But I’m here. I exist. And I’m telling you that I think it’s okay if you move on with your life. I want you to be happy. I never wanted you to wallow and be miserable all the time. You did that well enough yourself.”
The slight still made him laugh, and the back of his hand was too wet to brush light tears from his eyes. He always had been emotional, and his blue eyes always made it easier to tell when he was about to cry. “I guess you’re right for the most part, but you’ve always been a real person to me. I don’t write those songs because I’m in love with an ideal version of you. I just look back on all the shit we went through and wonder how we lost it. I mean, we didn’t have heat, and we were happy. We still managed. Then we actually had a bit of comfort, and it all went to hell. And things have gone so well for me. I can’t think of anything more that I could even want out of the band, but I go to all these hotels that look the same and have people ask me the same questions all the time, and I’m exhausted. I’m so tired of feeling hollow because the only time I’m happy is when I’m singing about you or thinking about you or trying to put you into words. I don’t want to make myself miserable. I want to be happy. I want to be with you, or at least have you say that it’ll never happen again so I can just accept the fact that I had my shot at happiness but threw it away.”
She found herself blinking back tears because they were the words she’d never expected to hear from him. She’d chased him away, hadn’t she? It wasn’t out of a lack of love though, but instead because she feared she would always forgive him for what he had done to her. She hated that he’d cheated, but she also felt that there may have been some reason she had driven him to do that. Too many doubts had raged in her mind and tormented her, and if she had taken him back, she knew she would have just been waiting for the next indiscretion, the next fight. It took all the strength she had, but she whispered, “I don’t even know you anymore.”
He took in the words and nodded. “My name’s Gordon, and I’m in a band,” he told her. She could still remember how he’d stood in the bathroom back then, embarrassed and angry and hopeful all at once. There wasn’t much of a gap between that boy and this man, even if he was soaking up to his chest in bubble bath. “I had everything, but I didn’t realize it. I had the girl, the career, the success. I guess I’ve been running from myself for years, really throwing myself into my work. I think I’m a normal guy. I like hockey. I like watching movies, especially comedies, and my favorite ever franchise is Star Wars. I laugh until I cry when I watch ‘The Simpsons.’ I’m not home a whole lot, but when I am, I try to cook because I think it’s a good habit to have. I really don’t like going to the gym, but I know I’m not twenty anymore. I took up swimming because I overthink. I still overthink, but I can hold my breath a long time.” He took a deep breath, but she didn’t answer, so he decided to keep going. “I want to write a screenplay one day, or maybe a novel. I’ve a few—“
That was enough for her. She gripped the edge of the tub as she leaned over to kiss him. She was cautious because of his tender nose, and she could taste the rust of his blood still on his skin. Still, she didn’t flinch away. He eased into her touch, surprised, shocked, then feverishly trying to cling to the moment before it was taken from him forever. Her calves shook from bending down next to him, but she kissed him until her lungs were pounding out their protest within her. “I thought you wanted to get a swimming pool filled with topless models and be a big fucking star,” she reminded him.
“Well, plans changed.” A big, dopey grin took over his features, and he leaned back in the water to try to catch his breath. “I guess I’ve grown up a little. Not completely, but a bit.” He licked his lip, and she wondered if he could taste the traces of her there. “Why did you kiss me though?”
“I thought it might help me figure something out.”
“And did it?”
There were any number of words she could have used to reassure him, but instead she coaxed her blouse over her head. She feared he could see how short her breaths were, but she had to keep telling herself that things would be okay. This is my choice. This is on my terms. I want to be happy and think that he can make me happy.
He sat up straighter in the water, but she held a finger up to indicate that he just needed to relax. A zip and a shimmy, and her pencil skirt was left in a pool on the floor. There was no need to hide her body because he had seen every inch of her. She’d acquired tattoos in the past few years, small marking that would help her remember while others were intended to signify how she was moving on. His eyes could have gravitated to those inkings, but instead he was watching her face, her eyes.
“Since you, I’ve been chasing men who’d break my heart.” Maybe they weren’t words that he wanted to hear, but she knew that he had to know the truth. “Men who hit me, men who drink too much, men who don’t seem to remember that I exist. Because I think that I can fix them. And if I could fix them, then I could fix you and finally get back to you, because you made me so happy when things were at their best. I never fixed any of them though. I just hurt myself. And I shut down parts of myself so I could stop feeling those awful things, so nobody could get to me.
“Then I saw you, and I told myself not to feel anything. Not to think anything. I’d hear you out, and that would be all. Then you had to go and get hurt, and that scares the hell out of me. I can’t just keep pretending that because I’ve worked so hard and taken care of myself, nobody can touch me or deserve me. If you hadn’t been here tonight, I don’t know what that man would’ve done. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen him at all. Maybe I would’ve done the same thing I did. But maybe I would have taken it.”
“You can’t worry about that,” he murmured. “You can regret anything you want, I can’t stop you, but it’s not going to change what happened. The past shouldn’t stop anybody from living.”
She sniffed and nodded. “I haven’t felt alive in a long time. I guess that’s the price of keeping it together. You just crush everything down and tell yourself that that’s okay, but it’s just getting by. I want to feel anything. Even if it hurts.”
“I hope it won’t though.”
Her skin felt like it was burning as she unhooked her bra and let it drop to the floor. She wiggled from her underwear and didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to know if he was watching or if he was still behaving as far as his gaze was concerned. “I have to tell you something though. Something that’s going to hurt you.”
It seemed ridiculous for the two of them to fold up into the tub when there was barely room for him, but she had to close the gap between them. She stepped into the water and was grateful that it was still hot enough to scald. How he withstood it, she didn’t know, but maybe they were both keen on punishing themselves still. He bent his knees and pulled them closer to his chest, and she encouraged his legs to part so she could settle between them. She couldn’t have him looking at her through this, so she turned to rest her back against his chest.
For a moment, his body tensed, and this his arms circled around her. Even if they weren’t entirely certain how to handle themselves, their bodies hadn’t entirely forgotten how to interact. “Maybe if you tell it like a story, it won’t hurt so much,” he suggested, his lips so close to her ear that she shivered in spite of the temperature of the bath.
She let her hands rest on his. It would be silly to try to draw strength from him, but she just wanted to steady herself and remember what it was like to be able to rely on another person. “Once there was a girl. All this girl ever wanted was to be better. She didn’t know what that meant, not really, but she wanted to be more than she was. So she learned how to dress and make herself up and talk and strut like the woman she’d soon be. This girl met a man and convinced him she was a woman, at least for a little while. And so when she did become old enough, she decided she would find him and see what happened.
“The man was very busy, but he loved the girl, and she loved him. They spent years together, but they were also years spent apart, and it was too much for them. The girl grew distant and didn’t pay attention to the man’s needs. The man misread her. The man felt alone, and he found solace in someone else’s arms.”
Her fingers tightened against him, fingernails finding purchase. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but she was afraid he would draw away before she could finish speaking. “So the girl left. She fled home with her tail between her legs because she didn’t know where else to go. She went to stay with her mother because she’d been living with her father before, and it just didn’t seem right to go there again. Plus her father liked the man too much. Her mom, she’d always been a bit of a tough man-hater.”
Gordon laughed quietly in her ear at the memory of his few awkward interactions with Lizzie’s mother, and she wished that he would stay that relaxed as long as she spoke. “She was starting to feel sluggish and out of sorts. She figured she was just depressed. She tried to get out into the city, make new friends, get a job, that sort of thing, but there was still something off. So her mom made her take a test, which was silly because she didn’t see how it was possible. But it was positive.”
The tears came then, but she refused to wipe them away. There was no way that she could carry on pretending it hadn’t happened to her. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so young, I’d barely gotten a new job, I couldn’t afford to take time off or even figure out how to raise a kid. I wanted to go back to you, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. I didn’t tell her what you’d done, just that we’d had a big fight and weren’t going to make it up because we were such different people, and she already had a couple of divorces under her belt. She didn’t think that a kid would be the thing that could make you and me make sense. And I was living under her roof, so I had to do what she wanted me to do or else she’d kick me out. So she made me, she made me—”
“No.” Still, when he moaned the word, she was certain that she didn’t have to tell him. It was clear from their night already that there was no small child sleeping in the bedroom, waiting for her to come home.
“I wanted to tell you so badly. I tried to call you, but you were off touring or something. I couldn’t get through, and then I just kept putting it off. After the ab—the procedure, I didn’t think I could tell you. I thought that I’d betrayed you so horribly that you’d never forgive me, so what was the point? You’d hurt me, but God, I really threw something away that was us. And I couldn’t stand that. So I went to work. I became obsessed with saving up. In a couple of months, I had enough that I could move out, and I came here, back to the city. I haven’t talked to my mom much since then because it just hurts too much. I don’t know if I’m angrier at her for the suggestion or at myself for being weak and listening to her because it was the easy way out.
“But I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t done it, but I don’t know how we could have a baby together. But with your life the way it is, how could we bring a child into that? You were making enough money though. I could’ve quit my job. We could’ve been with you and been a family. And there was nobody I could talk to about it, nobody I could tell because they wouldn’t understand what happened to us or why I did what I did.”
He was quiet behind her, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Her cheeks were burning with pooled blood, and she felt that she’d made a huge mistake. She’d let it lie too long, had made him come all this way and wait hours just to find out that he didn’t know the full story of what had happened between them. All those years of flogging himself for his one indiscretion had been for what? She hadn’t always rejected him, not really. She would have spoken to him, but she had kept her distance in order to mourn for the both of them.
She put her hands on the tub and tried to stand. She had to get away from him and hide in bed until he left. The shame of their past was too heavy for her to endure. But as she tried to pull herself up, his arms were still firm around her, this time coaxing her to sink back against him. “You can’t leave me now,” he said firmly. She could hear the tears in his voice, feel his chest struggling as he tried to keep from breaking down when she already felt like she’d ruined them before they could begin again. “Stay. Just stay.”
She didn’t know what else she had left to offer him, so she listened. This time, she stayed.