For the record, the next post is not a chapter, just an author's note.
Last one. Enjoy :)
Three Months Later…
In the short time I'd been here, I'd already figured out that that meant I'd be sitting for another five full minutes. This was the only one of my classes that consistently utilized every second of its allotted time. No early dismissal from math class. Which would have been fine any other day; I could use every bit of extra practice I could get and I knew it. But today, waiting for those last few minutes to drag by was torturous. I wanted out. I wanted to be moving. Maybe that wouldn't alleviate the nerves crawling under my skin, but at least it would have meant doing something. Even something as small as pacing would have been preferable to sitting here with a pencil in my hand when all I could think of was where I'd be in little over an hour.
It wasn't until I was convinced my body would liquefy from the tension that we were finally released.
On a normal day, I would pack up slowly, place my books and notebooks and pens very carefully in my backpack. It wasn't a concept of organizing now to avoid chaos later, I was just more comfortable leaving after the rush of students.
School had been a big decision, a heavy decision and I'd always known it would have ramifications. Being here set me on a path again, something I'd been sorely lacking for too long. Even though it was only a community college, it made me think of bigger life choices and opened up options that I hadn't even bothered to consider before. I'd expected all of that; it had been undeniably daunting and still sometimes was, but it was also part of the reason I'd enrolled. I needed to learn to think like that again. What I hadn't expected was the people. Being holed up in my room had turned me far more socially awkward than I'd realized. It wasn't that I wasn't ready to be friendly now, I just didn't know how. It was hard to be part of a group of peers when I wasn't sure how to act around them. So I smiled and nodded and made small talk when I was invited and kept my head down when I wasn't, all the while promising myself that soon I'd gather the nerve to initiate a conversation. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was a start. I was looking forward to the semester full of time to work on it.
Today though, avoiding a potentially uncomfortable encounter was the least of my concerns. I joined the mob and pushed out the door into the sunlight. It was still warm and bright outside, but there was a lingering coolness in the breeze that foretold the end of summer. What a shame. It had been such a good summer.
I was standing in a kind of courtyard formed by the classroom buildings as they stood in a three-sided square. The ground was mostly cement, but there were enough wire benches and planted trees to make the view interesting. Interesting, but not really desirable. My favorite place was a grassy area by the library that had huge shady trees whose roots broke the surface of the ground. But maybe that was just because the open field reminded me so much of the park.
In front of me was a three story business education building. If I could physically move it over by a few feet, I'd be able to see the parking lot. As it was, I had to settle for walking eagerly in that direction. When I rounded the corner of the building I was rewarded by the sight of a familiar black car. Bryan, waiting patiently for me. The sight sent a flood of warmth through my veins that I could never get tired of.
I took an excited step that was more of a skip and stopped during my next stride as I felt vibration against my thigh. It was my phone, set on silent for class. I grimaced at the interruption, but reached into my pocket all the same. It was probably Tommy calling, ready to nag me over the message I'd left her saying that I was baling on work and couldn't give her a ride like I sometimes did.
It was still exceedingly strange for me to put the words "Tommy" and "friend" together, but somehow it had happened. No matter that there were still some days when my sole desire was to strangle her. I didn't really want to talk to her now, but I figured I owed her a little more detail, even if those details were bound to be vague. Tommy might have been a friend, but there were some things I wasn't comfortable talking about with her yet.
It wasn't Tommy, and I opened the phone eagerly.
"Ayva, hi," I said, my tone brightening instantly. "I didn't think you'd be back so soon."
"Me either. I got lucky. I think they're getting tired of me."
I could wait to see Bryan for another few minutes. I leaned comfortably against the wall of the business building, laughing. "Are you kidding? Soon they'll start making up new things wrong with you so that you'll have to keep coming back."
Ayva groaned, a sound I'd grown to expect when the subject was doctors.
"You're not coming over later?"
I pursed my lips, back to thinking of what to say. I'd left Ayva a message similar to Tommy's, knowing that she had a doctor's appointment today. Usually they lasted forever and I hadn't thought I'd get the chance to actually talk about the change of plans.
"I know," I said with mock sympathy. "You're going to miss the chance to tell me what to do."
"There is that," she conceded thoughtfully. "But at least you're a challenge. I hate doing this stuff all over again."
"You know it really wouldn't be any more interesting in a classroom," I said soothingly. Ayva's bitterness didn't just stem from having to redo work in order to make up for the summer class she'd had to drop. She had fought and struggled, but in the end was simply not well enough to physically come to school. She was home now, a thigh length cast the only thing that suggested she'd ever been in an accident, and we all agreed that that was fantastic progress. Still, I knew that sitting on the couch and settling for online classes really bothered her.
"I know," Ayva sighed. "So definitely no tutoring?"
Tutoring: the time I spent at Ayva's house where she helped me with my math homework and we used the rest of the time relearning about each other. Before school, we'd called it visiting, but adding the homework made the process less focused and much easier. We'd hit a couple of road bumps, had our faith in making this work shaken, but we'd always recovered and everyday things got better.
"No. I'm sorry," I answered.
"Do I want to know why? Don't tell me. More shopping? Someone needs to tell your mom that the wedding isn't even this year."
I laughed. Lately Mom had dragged me into more bridal shops and dress stores than I'd cared to know existed. Richard was living with us now, and while I understood pushing things off for as much preparation time as possible, everyone was eager to make the arrangement official. "She's just excited. But no, no shopping, thankfully."
Ayva wasn't going to give up until I answered. It was one of those road bumps. She may have forgiven me, but trust was a little more difficult. Consciously or not, she wanted to make sure that I wasn't ditching for no good reason.
I sighed, biting at my lip as I considered how to say it. "I have some…personal business to take care of."
"What kind?" my tone of voice must have been very heavy, because this question was more curious than probing.
I tried, but the words wouldn't come.
I didn't matter; Ayva heard the answer in my deep silence. "Oh," she said softly. "You mean that? What you were mentioning a little while ago?"
"Yes," I said gratefully. "That." When I'd said something to Ayva, the idea hadn't been much more than a passing thought. If she hadn't guessed, Bryan would be the only one to know where I was going today. He'd been the one I'd discussed it with, and when the decision had been made, he'd insisted on driving, on being there with me.
"You okay?" Ayva's tone now held compassion and even a little guilt for making sure I wasn't making something up.
"I don't know." I said honestly. In class I'd merely been anxious, but now my stomach was starting to turn.
"Are you going now?"
"Okay." Ayva was quiet for a second, her turn to search for words. "Will you call me after?"
"If I can."
"Okay. I'll let you go. Good luck, Jules."
I hung up, distinctly more nervous now than I'd been five minutes ago.
I continued my walk to Bryan's car, slowly at first, weighed down. But then I saw him standing by the passenger door, trying to look casual but failing, his eyes bright as he watched me come closer, and things suddenly felt much better.
The first thing Bryan did when I was in front of him was take my backpack off of my shoulder. Then he bent his head down and gave me a welcoming kiss that quickly turned too heated for public eyes. It was difficult to settle for a simple affectionate peck.
When our lips parted he said, "Hi, beautiful."
Predictably, I felt my face go red. I remembered the first time he'd called me that; it had come out of nowhere one night when he'd dropped me off at my house and the sentiment had stuck. He didn't use it all the time, just sparingly enough that the shock value never died. Amazing as it seemed, I knew he meant it, though I was convinced that he said it mostly to see the blush the words invariably produced. The impish grin he was wearing now only helped to prove my theory.
I rolled my eyes at his antics, but stole another quick kiss to show my appreciation.
"Time to go?"
My mood immediately fell. It wasn't quite like coming down to reality—after all, Bryan was reality too now—but it was close.
I shook my head firmly. Dread had officially beaten out mere anxiety. "No."
Others might have expected Bryan to nod sympathetically, to comfort me and offer to take me home instead. I knew better. I'd long since figured out that Bryan had a better sense of the things I needed to do for my own good than I did. He never forced me into decisions, but once they were made and he knew they were important, he would never let me off with only a "no" as protest. So I wasn't surprised when he nodded, with sympathy, yes, and opened my door anyway, tossing my backpack over the headrest and into the rear seat.
He walked around the front of the car and left me to get in on my own. I hesitated, then took a deep breath and stepped inside.
The car was exactly the same as when I'd first been in it, down to the clean smell, except for one addition. Hanging from the rearview mirror on a red and blue ribbon was a silver medal. I knew that the team Bryan had actually played on had won first place, and even though I saw his eyes flare with indignation every time that final game was brought up, it was his coaches' medal he'd chosen to display. I was proud of that medal for several reasons, but I really didn't like seeing it there. It made me think of Andy, a person that I preferred my brain stay away from when I was in Bryan's car. Andy, who claimed to have gotten over the yuck factor of seeing his coach and his sister together, but who monopolized Bryan's attention whenever the three of us were together so that we couldn't so much as hold hands.
Bryan pulled us out of the parking lot, made a right, and stopped at a red light. One more left turn, then a straight stretch before we hit the freeway where we'd stay for an hour.
"Here," Bryan said. "You navigate."
He took one hand off of the steering wheel and opened the glove compartment, leaning across me, teasingly close. It was far from an accident, just like it was no coincidence when his fingers brushed my leg as he pulled two sheets of paper from the cubby and dropped them in my lap. Now that we were allowed tiny touches and we didn't have to play them off when they happened, we used them all the time. For me it was mostly still awe; I reveled in any chance I got to touch him and look at him with the secure knowledge that he didn't belong to anyone but me. It was all still so fresh and good and I was loving every minute of it.
I looked down at the papers in my lap as the car veered into its left turn. They were directions, printed from some internet map site. The route looked fairly simple, just a couple of freeway changes and then the off ramp. After that it got a little more complicated, a maze of city streets leading up to an address I'd only visited once before. My father's address.
A shudder ran through me. It was a tremor filled with so many different, complex emotions that I didn't even bother trying to interpret them.
Bryan felt it. Of course he had—he still had his fingers resting on my thigh. He glanced at me, his expression a strange mix of compassion and encouragement. "Are you okay?"
I shook my head helplessly, at a loss for an answer. Somehow it seemed like the wrong question. I was never going to be okay, but that was only a secondary consideration. "Are you ready?" seemed more appropriate, and yet I couldn't come up with an answer to that either. When I'd made the decision to talk to my father, to confront some of the hurt and anger and damage he'd left me with, I'd known I was ready to face him. This was my final step, the last piece of baggage whose contents I needed to sift through and thoroughly examine before I could think about discarding it. I could do it. If I was strong enough to work though my insecurities and learn how to love and trust, I was strong enough to work on forgiving. At least, that had been the theory. Now though, as we pulled onto the freeway and it was too late to turn back, I wasn't so sure.
I took a breath and said something that I would only ever admit to Bryan. Maybe to Richard too, but never over this subject. Bryan had been my confidant when it came to my father ever since the day when we'd been talking for hours and the conversation happened to stop on parents. He'd immediately noticed the pained look on my face and it had taken surprisingly little prying to pull the story out of me. He knew when to keep quiet and let me talk, when to show his indignation on my behalf, and had pinpointed the exact time when I was ready to hear the suggestion that maybe Bryan was not the one I needed to be talking all of this out with.
"I'm kind of scared," I said to him now, my voice tight.
At once, Bryan's fingers moved from my thigh and up to my face, holding me as best he could from such an awkward angle. If he hadn't offered to take me, I would have dragged him along. I could do this, but not by myself. I leaned my cheek into his palm, grateful for the comfort.
"It's okay to be scared," he assured me gently. "But I think you'll be fine. You already got past one hard part: calling him to set this up."
He tried to hide it, but I could hear his curiosity. I hadn't had the chance to tell him much about the phone call yet.
"That's true," I agreed. "That was hard."
"Like with Ayva?" he asked. He was trying to draw a comparison between the two scenarios so that he could be the first to point out how well the first one had eventually turned out.
In a rare instance though, he'd gotten it wrong.
"No. Not like Ayva. Ayva was my own fault that I was setting right. This time I'm on the other side."
Bryan nodded his understanding but kept his eyes on the road. I turned in my seat to face him and he put his hand back on the steering wheel.
"When I called, he didn't recognize my voice. It's been so long since we talked." I felt a bubble of familiar anger because I wasn't the only one with a phone. I didn't have to have taken so long. I pushed it away though, because I wanted to do this with an open mind, or at least a clear head. "And then…" Then the confusing part, the part I couldn't understand coming from the man who'd hurt me so badly. "He sounded happy to hear from me, excited that I wanted to come down." The petulance came back and this time I let it out. "If he wanted to see me so badly, why didn't he say something earlier?"
"Maybe he's afraid because he knows you're mad at him. That's a legitimate fear." He winked at me conspiratorially and I grinned back, happy to lighten the mood.
"It'll be all right, Jules, you'll see."
I sighed deeply, a tired sound. "I hope so."
Bryan made a point of squeezing my hand before going back to driving.
"Juan says good luck, by the way," he said after a minute. He threw the words out like a curveball and I struggled to catch the sudden subject change.
"Really?" I didn't bother to hide my surprise. There was no love lost between Juan and I and Bryan knew it.
Bryan nodded casually and I realized what he'd just done: effortlessly distracted me so that I didn't have to concentrate on my father and possibly combust from the worry.
"He's coming around, believe it or not."
"I don't believe it," I said frankly. My dealings with Juan had only gotten colder since I'd replaced Paula. Not surprising really; Bryan's whole family was having a hard time warming up to me, but at least they were trying.
"I think it's because, with his baby due any second, he has a lot more to worry about than my relationship."
"Well that's a relief," I said, only half joking. "Wish him luck for me too then."
He finally asked me how class had gone, a question that was usually first on the list on days when he picked me up. I filled him in on ever boring detail. That was the thing with Bryan, something that all those talks with Jason could never have achieved—Bryan could make a conversation about the weather riveting. It wasn't just a matter of how much I loved listening to his voice; he was good at putting a new spin on even the most mundane subject.
We sifted through topics like what we could do this weekend that were specifically designed to make me look ahead and forget the present. It worked for a while. Eventually though, I fell quiet. The hour that had seemed like a nice cushion of time was evaporating quickly. I could feel every mile drawing me closer to the confrontation. I wanted to call it a visit, but I knew that I was going solely to speak my mind and that would no doubt involve heated emotions on both sides.
Bryan felt my tension and his hand wandered back to my leg. There was nothing risqué about this touch, it was purely a show of support. He ignored my silence and kept prattling on about whatever he could think of until we exited the freeway and he had to concentrate on the directions I could barely whisper to him.
At last we pulled up in front of a large two-story house with pretty blue trim and a perfectly manicured lawn. It looked deceptively peaceful, welcoming even. I stared at it and felt fear make a knot in my stomach.
"Ready?" Bryan asked me.
I looked at him and understood that if I really needed to, Bryan would let me back out and take me home without question, that he wouldn't argue if I needed to try again. But with a confidence I didn't know I had, I recognized that that wasn't what I needed at all. I was more nervous than I could ever remember being, but seeing the house brought back memories, and with the memories came my sense of purpose. I wanted to do this. I wanted my father to see me and understand, no matter how hard it was.
I could finally answer the question.
"Yes. I'm ready."
I got out of the car before anything could make me hesitate. Bryan followed and met me on the sidewalk. He held out his hand and we walked up the driveway together.
At the door, I did hesitate, my breath coming in painful bursts.
Bryan leaned down to me, his lips under my ear. The position made me shiver, regardless of the circumstance. "You can do it. You're so strong."
Wondrously, I believed him. Because I recognized the truth. I'd fought long and hard to make it true.
"Yes," I said firmly, not trying to convince anyone, just confirming what I knew. "I can."
I reached out a finger, hovering it over the button of the doorbell.
I looked up at Bryan, who was back to standing next to me like a proper polite boyfriend.
"Don't leave my side."
He smiled at me sweetly, lovingly, and brought our joined hands to his mouth to lay a tender kiss on the back of mine. "I'm right here," he said. "I won't leave you alone."
I squeezed his hand tightly, lending his strength to my own, and rang the doorbell.