“I think he will. It’s completely voluntary, but his social worker says it was his idea.”
That was a good sign. I picked at the polish on my toenail as I considered the situation. “Maybe that’s what all of this was? A way for him to tell you that he needed more in-depth care.” It was hard for me to accept that Ben didn’t want to live anymore, and I’d grasp onto any other option if given to me.
I knew Norma felt the same. “I hope so,” she said. “Personally I think he doesn’t want to deal with Dad’s release. He obviously feels guilty about putting him behind bars in the first place—”
“Which he shouldn’t. Dad was hurting him.” He’d hurt us too, but not nearly as badly as he’d hurt Ben.
And I’d known Ben felt that way. He wouldn’t have run so far away if he didn’t. It was probably why he was so much more scarred by our abusive childhood than Norma and me. Because though we’d all been hit, he’d essentially been the one to finally put him behind bars.
“It’s not that simple to say what Ben should or shouldn’t feel,” Norma said. “He did the right thing, yes. But it’s natural that he feels responsible. And I’m sure that he’s worried that Dad will come after him now. I assured him in the letter that the parole terms won’t let him leave the state. I’ll make sure whatever facility we check him into will be secure, and I’ll hire a bodyguard when he gets out if that’s what he needs to feel better.”
“You told him all that in the letter?”
It was overwhelmingly reassuring to discover the lengths Norma would go to for Ben. I knew she’d do the same for me. She loved us wholly. She cared for us in ways that our father never did and our mother never could. She tried harder than she needed to make up for them. Often, I worried who was making it up to her.
Today, I tried to be the one who was her comfort. “He’ll read it, Norma. It will help. And when he does, I bet he’ll even want to see you.”
“Maybe.” She cleared her throat, and like I always knew with Norma, I could sense she was about to say something I didn’t want to hear. “Gwen, I know you were kidding about the guy in the kitchen, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea. You really need something to unwind you.”
And I was right—I didn’t want to hear it. It was bad enough when a stranger called me out on being uptight and I could deny it, or fuck him, as it turned out. When it was my sister, someone who knew me well, it was not as easily refutable.
My pleasant mood plummeted, and I was no longer concerned about consoling her. “I hadn’t realized my personality was so bothersome to you.”
“Don’t do that,” she scolded. “Don’t try to make it seem like I don’t love you just the way you are. You know that I do.” She softened now. “Your personality has never bothered me in the least. Your unhappiness, on the other hand, has. I always worry about Ben, but you should know I worry about you too. At least Ben knows that he needs an outlet. It might do you some good to find one as well.”
We hung up after that, and I immediately felt lonely. Again, I considered buying a ticket and going out to San Francisco just to be there with her. Just to be with someone.
But I didn’t want Norma more upset than she was. And she hadn’t told me the name of the hospital Ben was at, anyway. On purpose, I was sure.
So I stayed home. It was the first Tuesday evening in a long time that I’d spent alone, and that made me more restless than usual. I couldn’t find anything that would occupy my mind enough to settle down. No matter what I tried to do—reading, surfing Pinterest, cleaning—my thoughts kept returning to Ben and Norma and Dad.
I thought about JC, too. I guessed he was at the club while I was sitting on my ass watching Netflix, trying not to worry about my family or my own need for an outlet. I considered going to Eighty-Eighth. Considered finding something revealing in my closet, doing my hair and my makeup. I could show up in the Viper and take Norma’s advice—try to unwind.
But it would be weird to show up like that. Clingy and annoying. JC and I had clearly had a wham, bam, one-time thing. He’d probably have his horde with him again, anyway. Half-dressed women ready to respond to the snap of his fingers. He didn’t need me. And while I’d been bold when I’d dropped my panties that morning, that didn’t mean I was ready for an orgy.
Oh, and Alyssa was working. He’d come to the club that morning for her. I hadn’t forgotten that. Shame on me for making the whole thing a potential sex triangle in the first place. I refused to encourage it.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t fantasize about him again. Home alone with my vibrator, it seemed the thing to do.
It wasn’t until I’d woken up on Wednesday afternoon that I remembered—we hadn’t used a condom.
I got into a walk-in clinic that afternoon only to be told that it would be at least two weeks before any STDs could potentially show up. It would be longer before I could test for HIV. I was offered a morning-after pill, which I declined. Instead, I asked the nurse practitioner to check to make sure my IUD was still in place. It was. I left with an appointment to come back in a month.
A whole month. A month to worry. A month to regret. Needless to say, any bounce I’d had from my screw in the kitchen was long gone by the time I showed up for my shift on Thursday night. I was the closing assistant, so I didn’t actually need to be on the clock until ten, but I’d come in at eight-thirty, tired of being alone and fidgety at home. The main doors didn’t open until nine, so when I came in the back door, I stopped by to check on the kitchen staff before heading out to the office.
Maybe I just wanted to see it again—the cold, sterile room made alive by the bustling of prep cooks and wait staff. The place I’d stripped myself of my sanity and my panties. The place I’d let myself go. As the head chef, Brent, barked an order regarding the proper angle to julienne carrots, all I could hear were JC’s words to me. I want to make you feel good.
Even with the nagging worry about the health risks of my behavior, the memory brought a pleasant blush to my cheeks.
“Hey, pretty lady,” Brent said when he noticed me. He was one of the few staff members at the club that I could really get along with. Partly because I wasn’t his superior. While I was the first assistant manager of the club, Brent was pretty much the first assistant manager of the kitchen. We were equals who both reported to Matt.