“With the guy that you’re ‘spending time with?’ JC?”
“Yes,” I groaned. “Yes. I really think I am.”
“Why sound so miserable about it? He’s done wonders for you. I’ve never seen you as happy as I have the last few months.”
I was elated that she’d noticed. Also, scared. Because if she’d noticed, what had JC noticed?
“I don’t know, Sissy.” I focused on a couple at a table across the room as I let the not quite formulated thought take shape into words. “I guess I’m afraid I’m the only one who wants it to be more. Because I’m not sure what this is for him. He hasn’t said he wants anything other than the arrangement we have.”
“Have you asked him?” She said it as if it were the most reasonable idea in the world.
It probably was reasonable, now that I thought about it. It was our relationship that wasn’t reasonable. We’d both known it, too. It was why we’d been so wary of it when we’d started out.
So, if we’d both been smart enough to understand that we couldn’t dictate what happened emotionally, then why had we gone through with the plan in the first place? Was it all about lust? Or had we both been using the whole deal as an excuse?
I didn’t have the situation worked out enough to explain it to Norma. “We’re getting there,” I said, which was at least partially true. I was getting there, anyway. “Things…changed…yesterday. And I’m sure they changed for him as well as me.” I thought about the way he’d looked at me as we’d made love, the heavy longing in his tone when he’d said he was glad I’d come around. “Maybe he’s even willing to admit it.”
Except there had been the distance at the end. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. He has some secrets.”
“We all do.”
“Crazy thing is I think I’m handling mine better than he’s handling his.” I hadn’t thought it until I’d said it out loud, but now that I had, things clicked. There had been distinct events in my life that had shaped and defined me. Things that made me withdraw from people and disconnect from life. Those were the reasons I’d sought a no-strings relationship.
So why had JC? Sure, maybe he just wanted things simple. But wasn’t it safe to suppose that he might also have had events in his life that led him to be emotionally reserved too? I’d already let my guard down with him. He, on the other hand…he kept his guard tight. Was his past more tragic than mine?
The idea broke my heart in places I didn’t think were possible. It also gave me a clarity I’d lacked before. With a tremble in my lip, I met Norma’s eyes. “I don’t know if he can do this.”
She reached over and squeezed my hand. “Oh, sweetie, you won’t know until you give him a chance.”
I wanted to believe it was that easy. As the waitress set the food on the table, I let myself pretend that it might be. Let myself believe that I had the strength to put myself out there. Let myself believe that I had the character to be what he needed in a support system.
We ate several minutes in silence while I mulled things over. Norma was the first to speak. “Do me a favor—don’t sell him short. I might not know him, but if he knew how to break through to you, I think he’s a guy worth keeping around.”
I liked what she had to say too much. It made me hopeful. If Norma could see a real relationship between JC and me then it felt more possible.
Possibilities scared me. So I tucked her suggestion away and feigned insult. “You make it sound like I’m so unapproachable.”
“I don’t know. I guess I am.” Of course I am. Or I was. “I think I’m changing. Maybe not. A little, though?” If I were really changing, I should be able to tell JC how I felt.
“You’re changing. I see it. Everyone can see it.”
“Thank you.” This time I let her words really hit me. I soaked in them. I celebrated in the truth of them. It was amazing to have the accomplishment acknowledged. It was even more amazing that the accomplishment happened in the first place. So whether I told JC how I felt or waited to see what happened next between us, I’d still progressed as a person. That was what counted, wasn’t it?
“All of us are changing, I think,” she said, a bit whimsically. “You and me and Ben. We’re all learning to let love in. We’re letting our wounds heal. And you know what I think? It’s about goddamned time.”
It struck me as ironic that for as long as our father had been in prison, we’d been locked up as well. We were supposed to be the ones who’d been freed by his incarceration. Yet we’d each gone with him into captivity.
Now, for us to be liberated ten years later…
Yeah. It was about goddamned time.
The next week, JC canceled our date.
I’d still never given him my phone number—strange, he hadn’t asked for it either—so I had to find out in a call from Alyssa.
It was almost seven on Wednesday morning, and her name on my caller ID surprised me. I might not have answered except I was too curious. “Hey. JC was in last night,” she said, not bothering to say hello.
“Uh…and?” Of course he’d been in. It was the night he had booked in the Viper. But why she was telling me about it was beyond me. JC and I had kept our arrangement—our whole relationship—completely off the radar.
“He wanted me to get a message to you. Said he’s not going to need to book tonight. Said you’d know what he meant.”
“Oh.” It was cryptic yet clear. My heart fell to the bottom of my chest with a sickening thud. Yet now that it had happened, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought it might be a possibility. If I’d had any doubt that we’d truly connected the last time we’d been together, it was gone now. We had connected. He’d felt something, even if it hadn’t been to the same extent that I had. He had to have. Otherwise he wouldn’t be running now.
Or maybe I was jumping to conclusions. Maybe he had a good excuse.
“Did he say why?” After I asked it, I realized it was probably a weird question when he’d framed his cancellation to seem like he was cancelling a room at the club. Which meant I had to let that go unanswered. “I mean, did he say he wanted another night instead?”
“Nope.” She inhaled deeply—smoking a cigarette, I assumed. Or a joint. I really didn’t know her that well.