Never been nerdy, p.25
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       Never Been Nerdy, p.25

           C.M. Kars
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  “Yeah, I’ve been really busy at work.”

  Dad nods like this makes sense. I’m sure he knows I’m only partially telling the truth – he always was wily. I’d like to think I got my brains from him. “You put in the work, you’ll get the reward. Keep going, it’s going to be worth it in the end. Then I won’t have to worry about you marrying well enough that I can die in peace,” he gives me a tight-lipped smile.

  My heart hurts at the thought of him being alone without me to come visit, or dying in any circumstance without me being able to say goodbye.

  I hate coming here, I hate visiting him because while I hid my hurt in work, and anger, Dad never got over the betrayal. He can’t even stand to take a walk outside; he’s convinced himself that everyone knows how my mom humiliated him for years before opening her stupid mouth and asking for a divorce.

  “Dad, I want to talk to you about Mom.”

  Dad nods like he’s been waiting for this day for a long time. I look away from him, see the floor’s strewn with his dirty laundry, the way his hair sticks up at odd angles because of the way he’s slept on it, the greying beard that’s coming in patches along his cheeks. My dad’s gotten older without me realizing it.

  “How about I make you some hot chocolate, eh Dad? I’ll start the milk heating, alright?”

  I move into the kitchen without him giving me an answer, getting familiar with my mother’s kitchen again, finding everything I need. Once the milk’s on the stove, I look up startled to find him in the kitchen with m.

  Whenever I’m over, he never comes in the kitchen. It probably has to do that I’m a carbon copy of my mother when she was younger, and he can’t stand to look at me and not remember what she did.

  “I’m really pissed off at you.” The island is separating us, a generation of DiNovros, and about a Grand Canyon’s worth of pain. “You know, I didn’t want to get married, I didn’t even want to be in a relationship because of what happened between you and Mom.” My voice doesn’t crack, and I think I deserve a Dean high-five for it. Only he’s not here and this is something I have to do alone.

  “That’s a stupid reason, Katie. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

  “What? How can you say that to me?” The truth bubbles up inside me, and damn if that asshole isn’t going to want center stage. “I knew about Mom and him, and I didn’t say anything. I knew about it, I kept quiet about it for three years, Dad. Three long fucking years.”

  Dad’s eyes look even more sunken now, and I hope it’s my imagination, but he’s gone Casper-the-friendly-ghost-white, and looks like he’s having trouble breathing.

  “Cara, I don’t want to talk about the past.”

  “Really? Because it seems like it’s the only thing you do! You just sit here, in front of that stupid screen without watching, without feeling anything, and you go over it and over it in your head. Do you think I don’t see the way you look at me, the way you hate me because I look like her?”

  “That’s just not true.”

  I glare at him. “Dad, come on! Don’t lie to me.” Don’t lie to me. Not you, too.

  “I knew about her affair, Katie. I knew about it after a year that she was with him.”

  Ice trickles its way into my veins, and my heart gives a feeble thump like it’s going to give up any second. “What? How could you know? Did she tell you?”

  “It wasn’t hard to figure out. She started dressing more nicely, putting on more make-up to go to work. Late-night meetings, spending more time at the office. And she was happy, cara, so much happier than I could make her.”

  Anger incinerates the ice in my veins, and I curl my hands into fists.

  “How could you stay with her after that? How could you even make yourself sleep in the same bed?” Pressure builds behind my eyes, and that damn ticking eyeball starts. Tick, tick, tick.

  “Because I… I loved her.”

  “You loved her,” I snap, slamming my fists on the counter. “So you stayed when you knew she was getting her kicks with someone else?”

  Dad’s eyes are lost when he looks at me. Does he see me, or her?

  “I fell in love with her when I was twenty-four-years old. I married her six years after that. I made my choice.”

  “And you picked wrong, Dad! Can’t you get angry about it?” My voice cracks.

  Deny, deny, deny. I’m fine, really I am.

  “How can I get angry when I’m just as much to blame? I didn’t give her as much attention as she wanted and needed from me. I expected dinner on the table, and how many times did she do that for me? How many times did she pick you up from school because I was too tired to?

  “And I couldn’t say a thank you? She found another man who says thank you, cara, and I am not him anymore. I tried to make it work, but by that point she couldn’t look me in the eye anymore, let alone want me as her husband any longer. She knew what I was like, and knew that I wouldn’t change.”

  “Dad…” I don’t fucking like what I’m hearing. She cheated on him and now it’s his fault?

  My anger starts to slip away from me, but I need it, I need it so bad to keep me safe. Because there’s a man waiting for me at my apartment, getting ready to go on his shift to work, but first he’s cooking me dinner because he says he loves me.

  Is it real? For how long?

  “Listen to me, piccolina. Please don’t be afraid. I wouldn’t trade the last twenty-six years of marriage for nottin’.” Dad’s eyes are bright, and he clears his throat. I’ve never seen him so broken, even after the divorce was finalized, even after he found out that Mom’s remarrying.

  “I was blessed with a good woman for many years who used her time on me, who made me laugh, who loved me. I was the one that couldn’t give her what she wanted, that’s my fault, and I’m the only one to blame.”

  “But she broke your trust, Dad. She went behind your back and slept with another man!”

  There’s a parked car sitting on my chest, and I have to work to get the words out. The world has gone blurry and the pain in my throat has reached cataclysmic proportions.

  “Would I have loved it if she told me before she had done anything and asked me to go to marriage counseling, if she spoke to me about what she needed me to do? Yes, of course. I regret that every day, but maybe she knew I wouldn’t listen, that I wouldn’t change, that I wouldn’t learn to appreciate her, to love her the way she wanted.”

  “So there’s no hope then?” I don’t know what I’m asking. I don’t know what I’m even saying anymore.

  Is there hope for me, Dad? Am I going to follow in her footsteps? Am I going to find somebody and watch them disappoint me time and time again? What’s the point? Just… what’s the point?

  “Sweetheart…” Dad says, coming around the island and suddenly I’m in his arms, and he’s holding me tight and I haven’t gotten a hug from Dad in so long. I always felt like he blamed me for it all, the way Mom left, the way she couldn’t stand to be around me anymore.

  “I don’t want you hurting because of what happened. And it happened so long ago. It’s been years, why do you keep the hurt, uh?”

  Dad starts rocking us to the left and right, like he used to when I was a little fussy toddler and he’d rock me to sleep like this. It was the safest place in the world, and my dad was the strongest man. Monsters quailed in terror, and the world was his – and by extension, mine, too.

  I clear my throat, trying to erase the pain, but the stupid tears come anyway. I can’t do anything but cry while my Dad holds me like he used and tells me I’m the greatest, tells me how much he loves me, but most of all, he tells me it’s alright to be afraid.

  “Dad?” I ask, when my nose is full of snot, and I need to blow it so I pull away from him. “Are you proud of me?”

  “Why would you ask that?”

  Here comes the truth. “I – I haven’t been a good person. I did mean things to people I care about. I say awful things, I do awful things. I don’t know what’s wro
ng with me.”

  Dad kisses me on the cheek, and grabs my hand, walking me over to the couch beside his chair. For once, he doesn’t look at the screen, and 100% of his attention’s on me.

  “I know how you are. I know your mother’s marriage to Malcolm is giving you a hard time. I know you blame her, cara, but that’s not fair. And you’re not being fair to yourself when you push away the people you care about, and who care about you.”

  “I’m afraid I’m going to let them down.”

  Dad nods. “But of course you’re going to let them down. You have to decide if it’s going to become a permanent thing, or not. Go on, tell me what’s wrong.”

  I shake my head. “It’s okay, Dad. Get back to your game-”

  Dad squeezes my hand and makes me sit back down when I started to get up to make us lunch. “No. I want to hear this. Tell me.”

  I blow out a breath. Shit. “Remember my high school boyfriend, Dean Carter?”

  Dad’s eyes narrow. “Vaguely.”

  “Well, we reconnected and I’m scared of falling in love with him. I don’t want to do what Mom did to you. And knowing my bad luck, well, it’s not a matter of if, but when, Dad.”

  Dad sighs. “This curse-thing again. How many times do I have to tell you that no amount of malocchio in the world can stop you from doing what you want to do?”

  I twist my mouth. “Dad, you know what nona did, maybe it’s the whole reason why you and Mom split up.”

  “No. It’s not. Your mother chose someone else instead of me. I fought for her, but it was already too late. No amount of good luck could have changed that, either, and you have to believe that. I do.”

  “But, how can you?”

  “Katie, there’s no amount of outside forces in this world that can take away what choices you make. Do you love this kid?”

  “I’m not sure. I’ve never been in love. I don’t know if it’s possible.”

  Dad squints at me, and places another kiss on my hand. I want to cry some more. I missed him, I missed him being affectionate with me. “Every heart is capable of love, sweetheart, no matter how many times it’s been broken, patched, and sewn back together.”

  I blink. “Wow, Dad, that was really good. Can I hire you as a daily motivational speaker?”

  “Ah, shut up, you.” Dad smiles, giving my hand another squeeze. “All you have to do is try. This kid, does he treat you well?”

  I nod. “Probably more than I deserve. Definitely more than I deserve.”

  “And you, do you treat him well?”

  I frown. “Not as good as I should. I have to do something about that.”

  Dad nods. “You’re going to have to take it one day at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You have to be open to it, and when that times comes that you tell him, and you have to tell him, Katie, I promise you that you will never feel more alive.”

  “Yeah?” Dad nods. Then I ask, “But what if it doesn’t work out, what if I hurt him sometime in the future?”

  Dad huffs out a breath, like he’s completely exasperated with me.

  What, I want to know! Tell me!

  “I can’t tell you that because I don’t know, and neither do you. Do you believe he loves you?”

  I nod. “He says he does, and I think I believe him.”

  “Good. Then that’s where you start. You build friendship and trust. You build to love. You know, I swear to God, I remember the day I fell face first into love with your mother.”

  If this is a story about them having sex I’m going to vomit and bleach my brain…

  “We were walking outside, hand in hand, just walking to your zio’s place, going to have supper. She was dressed in jeans and these red boots she insisted she wear. It was fall and the leaves had practically all fallen. She picked up a leaf,” he says, eyes closed now, sifting through the memories.

  “It was bright, bright red, and she handed it to me, smiling all the while because it was a dying leaf but still perfect she said to me. I don’t know what it was, but just the act of her picking up that leaf, and then giving it to me, I dropped like a stone, cara.”

  “I was waiting for this big romantic story, Dad, and you give me this?” I grin when he starts to look hurt. “I know what you mean, I think. It’s not going to be some grand thing that he does, but a tiny thing that’s going to make love him. I do care for him, Dad, he’s a good person.”

  “He sounds like a good guy. I would love to meet him, when you’re ready. If it’s the kid I’m thinking, you sure he can protect you in the middle of the night with that stick-thin body of his? He’s probably a buck twenty soaking wet.”

  I laugh, throw my head back, and let it ring out in the lonely living room. “Dad, Dean’s changed a lot. Anyway, if that day comes, I’ll call you, okay? Now, go watch your game and I’ll make us some lunch.”

  I get up from the couch, letting go of Dad’s hand. When I round his chair, he grabs my other hand, stopping me in my tracks.

  “Thank you for coming to see me, I know I haven’t been the best of company. And thank you for always doing the cooking. Thank you for being here.”

  Eyes burning with more tears, I lean down and kiss the top of his head.

  “Thank you, Dad, for helping me out today. Just… thank you. I feel a lot better.

  In the kitchen, I go over what I have left to do, scrolling through my mental checklist.

  Only three things left.

  Become Sera’s best friend again.

  Make sure Dean knows the score and that he can leave anytime he wants to.

  Give Dean and me a chance. A real chance.

  Chapter 28

  “I’m here!” Dean calls from my bathroom when I walk into my apartment.

  “Marco!” I yell out, taking off my heels and padding into my living room.

  “Polo!” Dean calls, but instead of me finding him, he comes to find me.

  Typical Dean. Always making the first move. Just means he’s braver than most. So what does that make you?

  “Hey!” He comes running around the corner, sliding on his sock-feet like he’s a puppy who can’t stop in time. He’s smiling at me, grinning, eyes crinkling on the sides. My insides do the hula dance, and my heart’s giving me problems. He’s really beautiful, and for now at least, he’s mine.

  “Your old man okay?”

  I nod, putting my purse down. “Yeah, he’s fine. Do you have to leave soon for work?” He’s got his hair tied up in a man-bun, bits stuck behind his ears because of the length in certain areas.

  “Yeah, but I can delay another fifteen minutes if you need me for something.”

  He just had to say that. He just had to.

  “No, that’s okay. I have something I need to do. How about I drive you to work? It’s cold outside.” I can’t look him in the eye, he has to know what’s going on in my head. He has to know all this crazy shit that’s going on inside me.

  “Kitten, is something wrong?” I didn’t even track him coming to stand in front of me.

  “Uh, yeah. Everything’s good. You got your shit? We can leave now so you can prep or whatever.”

  Stop being a bitch just because you’re scared. You’re being obvious!

  I get a gentle nudge under my chin and now I’m looking into Dean’s green-green eyes. I swear, God was being awesome the day Dean was made. How am I supposed to think when he’s looking at me like that?

  “Did I do something wrong?” Shit, he’s chewing his lip looking absolutely adorable and scared and nervous and I can’t open my mouth to say the thing that need to be said.

  “No, I promise. Everything’s good, I swear. Do you want to give me your keys so I can go feed the boys during your shift, or is Max over? I find myself missing Potter.”

  Dean’s eyes go cloudy and he just stares at me, looking at me like he’s not quite sure what to do with me. Yeah, well, I don’t know what to do with me. I should be old enough to have my shit figured out.

  Oh, man, what if I never do? What
if nothing’s ever really resolved? What if life isn’t a problem you can solve and be done with it?

  Maybe you just have to roll with it and do your best. And find someone along the way who doesn’t want to kill you. Find several people like that.

  “Max is staying at his girl’s place, actually. Would you mind going over and keeping the kids company? I hate leaving them in their cages, they look at me like I’ve sentenced them to death whenever I do. Then I give them cookies because I feel bad, and the con-artists take me for a ride every single time. I go to the damn pet store three times a week to keep up my supply.”

  I give him a half-assed grin, looking away from his face. “Are you ready to go?” I summon the courage to look him in the face and he just gives me a grim nod.

  “Yeah. Here are my keys. Stop by whenever you want, watch a movie or something. I’ll be by late, maybe around two, so if you don’t mind staying awake ‘til then, I can give you a ride home later, no problem.”

  “Okay,” I tell him, already ushering him out of my apartment, getting the door locked and navigating the stairs in the heels I’ve re-put on.

  I am an awkward snowflake. What the hell is wrong with me?

  Well, you might be admitting to yourself that you could possibly lo-

  “Are you sure you’re feeling alright? I didn’t do anything, uh, wrong last night, did I?”

  “What? No! There was nothing wrong. It was pretty good, actually. I mean, uh, can we not talk about this in the stairwell? Or in the elevator?”

  Or ever?

  “Are you trying to gently let me down, ‘cause I can take it. I told you how I felt too soon, and now you’re freaking out. I told you, you don’t have to say it back. I just…” Dean takes his hair out of his bun, then aggressively grabs hanks of it trying to put into order back in a bun. I appreciate the view, but try not to look too closely at him.

  Why is this whole love shit so terrifying?!

  Maybe because for once in your life, you’re giving someone power over you, to rip you to shreds, to grind you to dust.

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