A little story that’s been going through my head like a prayer…
“What?” Jenna barely recognized the bark as her own voice, but she could sense Toby cringing back into the faint strip of light that separated her from the party going on in the next room. Never in their three months together—the longest relationship she’d managed in years—had she spoken to him so sharply. He didn’t deserve that. “Sorry.” She pushed herself up from her sister’s bed, pausing in case the vertigo returned. It didn’t. Still, she didn’t feel like standing yet.
The softer tone emboldened him to venture a couple of steps closer. “I was just coming to see if you were all right.”
“I’m fine.” The words rolled out on cue, her automatic response to nearly every inquiry about her health, her moods, her distraction. She hadn’t thought anyone would miss her, with her nieces and nephews running around being adorable, with Toby deep in a discussion about football with her brother, with somebody sitting down to the piano. The air had felt suddenly too close, too warm, and she’d learned the hard way that when the chain of symptoms starts, if she doesn’t get horizontal fast, nature will do it for her. “I think… Maybe it was the wine.”
She hadn’t been drinking, a fact she hoped he didn’t notice, but if he had, he didn’t call her on it. Just stood before her, in that sweater she loved, arms tight over his chest, and nodded.
She’d suffered through these episodes before, and her doctor had no answers for her, despite the battery of tests he’d ordered, but it had never happened here, in her sister’s house, surrounded by family. Maybe what her last boyfriend said when they broke up had been right: “Lady, you need a shrink.” She wrote it off then as one of those throwaway lines, by a wounded guy who needed to have the last word, but perhaps he’d been more intuitive than she’d believed.
She’d never told him what happened to her. She’d never told any of them.
Toby’s eyes were soft. At times he reminded her of a forest creature. She worried that she’d scare him off. Like the others. But he wasn’t like the others. He ended their first date with a light squeeze of her hand and a smile. After their second, he asked if he could kiss her goodnight. It was kind of sweet. Again she felt bad for being so bitchy to him.
She patted the mattress beside her. He came over and sat, leaving just the right amount of space between them. She liked that he was there. She liked that they were about the same height. It made her feel safer. “Do you want to go home?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, really, I think I’m feeling better now. But maybe we could just, you know, stay in here for a while.”
Her nieces started singing “Ave Maria.” That song. The beauty of it. Their pure, unspoiled voices made her chest ache. Then tighten with anger, scaring back her tears. If anyone so much as laid a finger on them…
She grabbed his hand so tight he flinched away. “Hey, what—?”
“Something happened to me,” she said in a rush, barely above a whisper, her throat so tight from the tears it felt raw. “It was a long time ago and it was really bad and that’s why I can’t, why I have such a hard time, why I’ve never told anyone…”
And there she stopped. The song dove and swooped, the notes on angelic wings.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to. I know how difficult it can be.”
She kept bobbing her head. He seemed like he meant it. That it was enough for the moment. But then she turned to him, drawn by something in his tone, a question in her eyes.
He nodded. “Yeah. But we don’t have to talk about that now, either.”
She moved a hand closer. He met it.