The sound of my own voice startled me and took my breath away. The silence that hovered in the air afterwards was so thick and so profound I felt like I’d been sucked into a vacuum. The dim light grew dimmer and the walls suddenly came to life and started moving away from me. They raced by me at an alarming speed and left me feeling dizzy and disoriented.How is that possible?
I wondered. Rooms can’t disappear, walls can’t move…
I watched, fascinated, as the walls rushed back seemingly faster than they’d receded, my breath returning with them. “What?”
“Don’t fall apart on me, okay?”
I pried my eyes away from the wall and looked up to find Will standing over me. Rivulets of tears poured from his eyes and dripped from his chin to my arm, leaving perfectly round wet spots on my gray Boston College sweatshirt.
“Will? Why are you crying?”
“Oh, my God…” he murmured. “Baby girl, your hands…look at your hands…”
I watched him closely and tried to see in his eyes exactly what it was he couldn’t bring himself to say. I couldn’t read his eyes as easily as I could read Geoff’s…
“Oh, my God.”
“Your hands, darlin’…”“Don’t call me that!”
The emotion I’d been searching for in his eyes became clear. “I can’t stay here. I’m sorry…I’m so sorry,” he said, his voice lost in the stranglehold of anguish.
Fear crashed over me like a wave. “Oh, no, baby, please don’t leave me here by myself, please, Will…I’m begging you…”
But he was gone, the door to the bedroom left open in his haste to get away from that room. I listened to the familiar sounds of a person leaving the house: the creak of the stairs, the click of the closet doorknob as it turned, the stomping of feet being stuffed into shoes, the sound of city traffic as the front door was pulled open, the deafening silence of an empty house.“WILL!”
I shrieked, hoping that he was playing with me and wasn’t really gone, but the house remained smothered in the silence he’d left behind.My hands.
Tears started to stream from my eyes as I looked down at the lifeless hand that rested in my own. Two sets of fingers: one long and pale, the other short and freckled; one warm and living, the other cooling and lifeless, twined together, perfectly joined.Our hands.
They tugged at me, those hands, evoking memories so strong and vivid they invaded my senses.A bright, sunny day in May. High, fluffy white clouds drifting lazily across a crystal blue sky. The salty smell of the harbor drifting up to the Common on a warm breeze, strong enough to blow my hair across my face and his across his forehead. The sound of children laughing filtering up from the playground to our bench at the top of the hill where we sat and watched politicians as they flowed in and out of the State House.
His hand reaching across the bench instinctively, his fingers twisting themselves into the spaces between mine and resting lightly on my knuckles.
“What are you doing?”
“That woman over there, see her?”
“She keeps looking at me.”
“I don’t want her to talk to me.”
“I’m the beard now?”
“Do you mind?”
“If I say yes?”
“You’re awfully sure of yourself.”
“Only with you, darlin’…only with you.”
My eyes fell to the familiar patch of keloidal skin on the back of his hand. That patch of knotted skin may have been the only tangible evidence of Charlotte’s abuse, but it was hardly the deepest scar she’d left him with. I thought of her, face contorted with rage, as she lunged at him with the scissors she’d been using to cut flower stems. He hadn’t moved out of her way quickly enough and even after the shock faded he’d made no attempt to move. It had been me who’d shoved Charlotte hard enough to knock her off balance, and when all he could do was stare at the scissors protruding from the back of hand, it had been me to pull them out. I closed my eyes against the next unbidden memory.Copious amounts of crimson red blood pouring from his hand, scaring me. Graham, his brother, laughing.
A shrill voice, my voice, screaming. “What is the MATTER with you!”
“I could ask you the same question, gallivanting about with a nancy boy.”
“What does that make you? A pro, perhaps?”
A blur of green streaking by me and pushing Graham violently into the wall by the throat.
“Don’t talk to her like that.”
“And what are you going to do about it, Nancy?”
The sound of something cracking violently filling the room, more blood, pouring not from Geoff’s hand but from his brother’s nose.
“You’ll always be a fuckwit, Graham.”
Somebody grabbing him by the back of his green shirt…me?... pulling him backwards.
“You need stitches, darlin’.”
“Did she really stab me with bloody scissors?”
“And they think I’m the problem.”
“I need sutures.”
“You have blood on your hands…”
The sink turning pink as I washed his blood from my hands without a thought.
I opened my eyes and with my thumb traced the ropy line that led away from the scar and traveled down to his wrist. Carefully, I pushed back the navy blue cotton of his shirt and exposed the rest of the scar. I traced it all the way up to his elbow where it abruptly changed from an angry red slash to a simple discoloration.
“You survived Charlotte,” I whispered, repeating the mantra that had gotten us through the ensuing hospital visit where it had taken two hours and over a hundred stitches to sew his arm back together.
And when a doctor with a broad smile had approached him with yards of string and a hooked needle, he’d instinctively reached across the gurney and twined the fingers of his healthy hand into mine.“You need a beard for this?”
“A bit of comforting would kill you?”
“I’ll remember this the next time your mother tries to kill you.”
“At least your mother cares enough to try.”
“My mother tried to kill me.”
“Nah, she wouldn’t have gone for your arm if she was serious about killing you. Maiming, love. She was going for a maiming.”
“Oh, well that’s much easier to forgive, then.”
“Sod off, love.”
“Fine. Can I have my comfort back?”
A loud, bellowing laugh filling the room, startling both of us into silence and leaving the doctor responsible for the noise blinking furiously at us. “How long have you two been married?”
Sighing deeply, I pulled the shirt back down to his wrist and rubbed gently at the scar.You have to let go.
“I can’t.” My voice sounded foreign to me.You have to let go.
“I’m not ready.”You have to…
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
The phone began to ring and the jangling bell sounded as foreign to me as my voice had just seconds earlier. My first instinct was to answer it, but when I made a move to reach for it I realized I'd have to let go of his hand and I was unwilling to do that.
Something nagged at me as I listened to the ringing. I felt unsettled and panicky and didn’t know why. The phone stopped ringing and for a split second I felt relief, but then I heard something click and I was thrown off balance immediately, even before I heard the voice.
“Shit…” I whispered in my foreign voice. “Oh, no, no…”“Leave a message. Don’t leave a message. The odds of you getting a return call are about the same either way.”
I closed my eyes and prayed whoever it was would not leave a message.
“Hey, it’s Andrew…”Shit.
“…are you sleeping?…”No.
“…and Will should call if he needs a break…”Will’s broken.
“…and I hope today is an okay day…”Today’s shaping up to be spectacularly bad but thanks for the thought.
“I love you guys. I’ll call later.”You do that.
In my mind another message from another time played.“Baby, it’s me, I know you’re home…please pick up the phone…Geoff, pick up the phone…I need help…this guy, he’s drunk…and Tracey left me here…I thought he’d pass out by now but he’s stalking the hall and…she left me here…”
“She left you where? I’ll fucking kill her.”
Relief at the sound of his voice. “Oh, thank God…take a cab and tell it to wait, okay? I have enough money…”
“Yeah, because that’s what I’m thinking about right now. Where are you?”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“It’ll take you that long just to find a cab…”
He’d been wrong, but so had I. It took him fifteen minutes. Through the door of the bedroom I’d locked myself in I heard him banging on the door to Tracey’s apartment and my drunk blind date refusing to let him in. I took a chance and ran for the front door.
My blind date, a hulking man named Kevin who played football at Northeastern University, grabbed my jacket but I managed to shake myself out of it and unlock the front door. Geoff, tall and athletic but not a hulking football player, grabbed me with one arm and pulled me through the door violently enough to rattle my teeth. Kevin was left wondering how he ended up with a mouthful of Tracey’s carpet.A yellow taxi waiting at the curb with exhaust fumes sputtering from the tailpipe, a bald man with bad teeth at the steering wheel.
“Back to the Hill, folks?”
“No…I live on Marlborough…”
Geoff interrupting. “Yes, back to the Hill.”
“You are not going home alone.”
“And I’m firing Tracey.”
“You can’t fire her.”
“Are you going to slobber on me now?”
“No,” but doing it anyway, and inhaling the smell of sleep from his face. “I woke you.”
The hand reaching instinctively across the seat and twining into the other hand now is mine.
I wondered briefly what time it was and how long I’d been sitting there. I wondered where Will had gone and if he was okay. I wanted to be angry with him for leaving me there alone, but I couldn’t seem to find the energy or the will.
I took a deep breath and continued to rub my thumb across the scar on Geoff’s hand. “Don’t be angry at him for leaving,” I whispered. “He isn’t like us…”“…you’re not like us, Will…”
“Please try to understand…”
“I can’t. It makes no sense…”
“It makes perfect sense.”
“Only to you.”
“Not only to me.”
“Fine. And her.”
Clearing my throat, reminding them. “Here. I’m here.”
Will, rolling his eyes and huffing in annoyance. “Imagine my surprise.”
“I don’t like where this is about to go, Will.”
“And imagine my surprise at that, Geoff.”
“Can you just, for ONE BLOODY SECOND, stop being such an asshole?”
Geoff sighing. Glaring, green eyes flashing dangerously. “I’m tired of defending. I’m tired of explaining. I won’t do it anymore.”
Trying but failing in my attempt to stay out of what had nothing and yet everything to do with me, “Okay, guys, this is silly. I’m going home…”
“No, you are not. William is going home.”
The harsh sound of hysterical laughter and a coffee mug flying across the room, breaking into three pieces and crashing to the floor. “Home is North Carolina.”
“I hear Delta has a direct flight.”
“Are you insane?”
“Not even a touch.”
“You really want me to go?”
“You really want me to choose?”
“ I really want you to go.”
His fingers latching themselves around my knuckles and squeezing gently as the front door swung closed.
“Oh, darlin’, no, not me…”
“But you could love him.”
“I already love you.”
My throat constricted painfully at the memory, but it was Will I cried for. Geoff had hurt him terribly that day, and yet he came back. He knew his place would always be behind mine; he knew he couldn’t win a battle for Geoffrey’s heart, and still he came back.
He spent two years loving Geoff deeply and taking what he could get in return. He gave up his dream job because it took him out of the country for months at a time and he couldn’t bear the thought of Geoff being sick without being there to take care of him. He’d grown not only to accept me but to love me, just as I had him.
I wept for Will because in those final minutes, when his partner, a man he loved with all of his heart and soul, was dying and searching for comfort, it was me he’d reached for.
Choking back the sob that was rising in my chest, I finally turned away from the bottom of the bed and looked down at Geoff’s face. His eyes were half-open, the light that had once sparkled in them nowhere to be found. I choked back another sob as I gently brushed my fingers against his eyelids to close them.
I pressed my lips into his forehead and inhaled deeply.
“Until the day I die, baby. I will love you.”
I pulled his hand to my face and kissed each of his knuckles before I very carefully…oh, so very carefully…untwined my fingers from his.