Stroked long, p.10
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       STROKED LONG, p.10

           Meghan Quinn

  Sitting back, she exhales loudly and pretends to wipe sweat off her brow. “Whew, that’s good. You don’t approve of drugs.”

  “Does anyone approve of drugs?”

  Casually she answers, “Druggies.”

  How can anyone argue with that?

  “Fair enough. But no, it’s not drugs. He had a troubled childhood.”

  “Oh, that’s so terrible,” my mom answers, her hand over her mouth. “What happened?”

  “I don’t really know the details. All I know is he lost his parents when he was young. You can tell when interacting with him that the loss still affects his day-to-day routine. There’s been a few times I’ve noticed he’s on the verge of a panic attack. Interacting with others, being social doesn’t come easy to him. Actually, most of the time it’s very awkward to talk to him.”

  “You don’t make fun of him, do you? Ruby, if you dare tease him—”

  “Mom, why would I ever make fun of him? That is absurd. I actually try to help him out as much as possible.”

  “How so?” Taking a sip of her lemonade, she settles in for my explanation. And that is why I appreciate my mom. She listens actively. Attentively.

  “For instance, the other night when Bodi was here painting his canvas, before we got started he noticed I didn’t lock my front door. Someone else wouldn’t care as much, but he seemed fixated on the door being locked, to the point that he zoned out on me, and his breathing started to become erratic.”

  “Interesting. I wonder if it has anything to do with his childhood. What did you do?”

  “I locked it before he could fully retreat from the night we were just starting to have. Once the door was locked, he seemed to enjoy himself. He actually joked around for the first time since I’ve known him.”

  Placing her fist under her chin, my mom smiles and says, “Oh really? And how did you like this joking around? Did it make you weak in the knees?”


  Yes, oh my God yes. That little chuckle of his, the slight quirk of his lips, yes, I was very weak in the knees. I’m surprised they didn’t boil over into noodles.

  “I thought you didn’t lie to your mother.” I hate when she’s right.

  “I would say it’s more denial than lying. I’m not ready to voice my infatuation quite yet. But if you must know, everything about him is gorgeous, Mom. Not just his looks, but his mind, his soul—no matter how torn apart it might be right now.”

  With a smarmy look, my mom replies, “Lucky for him, you’re really good at sewing.”

  We spend the rest of the night searching the Internet for pictures of Bodi. It’s massively inappropriate, and if Bodi ever found out I was ogling over his abs with my mom I would be absolutely mortified.

  Before my mom leaves, she pulls me into a hug and says, “I’m proud of you, sweetheart. You seem to be doing well.”

  “Emotionally I am, but fiscally I’m going to have to figure out something else. I have one of the smallest apartments in the city, and I can barely afford it. I need a little side job to supplement my income while I search for a career, not just a job.”

  The loving warmth of my mom’s hand pats my cheek, her face endearing as she speaks. “I have faith in you, Ruby. I know you will figure everything out. But you will let us know if you need help with rent; we will not have our daughter living in squalor, you hear me?”

  “Yes, Mom.”

  Little does she know, I would never take her up on that offer. I want to make it on my own, even if that means doing weird side jobs to get my bills paid. Oh, Los Angeles, why do you have to be so expensive?

  With a quick clean up in my living space, I get ready for bed and sink into my mattress, thoughts of Bodi clouding my mind. I so desperately want to know what happened to him when he was a little boy. Not because I’m nosey, but because I truly want to know how to make his life better, how to make it easier, how to remove the pain that taints those beautiful eyes of his every day. But could I? He’s what he is today because of what happened years ago. How would I have the skills to help him heal?

  The urge to talk to him is overwhelming. The need to see how he is takes over and before I know it, I send him a text as I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, images of his sweet face running through my mind.

  Ruby: Hey Bodi, how was your day?

  I don’t expect an answer; I don’t really expect anything from him in return. The purpose of my text message is to show him I’m thinking of him; he’s not entirely alone in this world. I know he has Eva and Lauren, but sometimes he makes it seem like he doesn’t even have them, like he’s completely alone.

  But, he’s not. I’m here and I want him to know it.

  My diarrhea mouth wants to commandeer my phone and take over my text messages. It wants to manipulate the conversation and go bat-shit crazy on him. But I don’t let it. The last thing I need is to have my ramblings recorded; hearing them in person is bad enough.

  Sleep eclipses me, and I start to drift into slumber when my phone beeps at me. Startled and anxious, I shoot up, my sheets falling to my lap as I grab my phone.

  As if my stomach is at the Olympic Gymnastic Trials, it somersaults with nerves as I read his text.

  Bodi: All right. What about you?

  Oh God, Oh God, Oh God. He texted me back! I received a text from Bodi.

  Will this feeling ever dissipate? Will I always get giddy inside whenever I see or hear his name? Probably. He’s unattainable, a shattered human I so desperately want to get to know on a more personal level, despite his need to keep his distance.

  Calming my inner fangirl slash crush, I text him back, keeping it simple.

  Ruby: Good, had some cookies and painted it up at the club with the kids.

  I steer clear of talking about my mom. I don’t want to rub my good fortune in his face. I’m not quite sure how he feels talking about other people’s parents, and since he’s texting me for the first time, I don’t want my first text back to him to be about someone he lost too early in his life.

  In no time, he texts me back and for once I realize, we are having a text conversation. Lame I know, but it’s the little things with this man. The little accomplishments, the little milestones, that are making this journey of getting to know him that much more enjoyable.

  Bodi: What kind of cookies?

  Inwardly I smile and turn toward my nightstand, getting in perfect texting at night position.

  Ruby: The kind of cookies you wouldn’t approve of.

  Bodi: Indulge me.

  Why am I smiling like an idiot right now?

  Ruby: Peanut butter cookies with chopped-up Butterfingers. They are my favorite. You have whey protein balls and I have these.

  Bodi: Yours sound better.

  Ruby: I’m not going to lie, they are. Are we still on for tomorrow?

  We have plans to meet up about the foundation tomorrow night at Bodi’s place this time. Even though I believe Bodi had a good time at my small apartment, I’m almost positive he’s more relieved to be meeting at his condo. For one, it’s familiar to him; for another, there is more space and an actual living room, unlike my living/dining/bedroom space.

  Bodi: Yeah. I’m making pizza. That okay?

  Ruby: Pizza, I’m surprised you even know the word.

  Bodi: It’s made with romaine lettuce as the crust, tofu for the meat, and tomato slices as the sauce. Really good.

  Lettuce for crust? My entire body convulses from the mere thought of gluten-filled fluffy crust being replaced by water-saturated lettuce. I’m surprised he didn’t talk about using kale as well.

  Not wanting to be rude about his gross pizza, I text back.

  Ruby: That’s a different kind of pizza.

  I make a mental note to eat before going to his place. Tofu, tomato slices, and lettuce will not do it for me.

  Bodi: Would you eat it if I made it?

  Thank God this conversation is through text message so he can’t see the cringe and disgust on my face.
br />   Ruby: Of course. I love trying new things.

  This is true, but I normally like my new things to have some sort of fat content in them.

  Bodi: Do you really think I would make that kind of pizza?

  What? Was he not serious?

  Ruby: I guess it would surprise me more if you ate a normal pizza from Pizza Hut.

  Bodi: That won’t happen. I’m making a regular pizza, just homemade. That good?

  Thank you, Thor!

  Ruby: Perfect. Do you want me to bring anything? I can bring you a head of lettuce just in case you want to use it for crust.

  Bodi: I’m good.

  Hmm, not even an “LOL”? He’s a tough cookie to crack.

  Ruby: Okay, see you tomorrow.”

  I don’t really want to end our conversation, but I don’t know what else to say. I would love to play the “What’s Your Favorite” game, but I don’t think we are at that level yet. Plus, he might have an early practice tomorrow. I don’t want to keep him up.

  Bodi: Have a good night, Ruby. Sleep well.

  And sigh. Those two last words I can hear in his husky voice and like a pathetic lonely lady, I use it as a lullaby to put me to sleep.

  Until tomorrow.

  Chapter Eight


  “Thanks, Coach. I feel really good.”

  “You’re the best I’ve seen you in a while, Bodi. You’re loose, not so tense, making your strokes more fluid through the water. Can I chalk it up to the girl who was watching practice the other day with Lauren?”

  “And here I thought these end-of-the-week phone calls were supposed to focus on the pros and cons of the week.”

  “If there is an outside source making my practices with you easier, then I believe it’s something we should talk about.”

  He’s prying, and it makes me uncomfortable, but I would never disrespect him by changing the subject. He’s been a father figure in my life since I lost my parents. He’s a role model, someone I’ve come to count on, so the least I can do is answer his question.

  “Soo . . .” he urges.

  “Her name is Ruby and she’s just a friend. We are working on a project together for the foundation Eva and I are starting. She’s been very helpful and insightful. She’s come up with some amazing ideas.”

  “And . . .”

  Yeah, I didn’t think he would let me get out of the Ruby conversation that easily.

  “And she’s different.”

  Fuck, how do I talk about Ruby without exposing all my cards to my coach? Firstly, I don’t have a firm grasp on my feelings for the vibrant and eccentric, blonde-haired, beautiful woman. And secondly, there is no way she will want to stick around once she opens my box of crazy, so is it worth going down that road with her? We might be better off as only acquaintances.

  “Different how?”

  I run my hand through my hair as I lean back on my couch. The smell of lemon Pine-Sol drifts into my nose, a scent I’ve come to know with aching familiarity. Gleaming hardwood floors, pristine tabletop surfaces, and crystal-clear windows surround me. There is not one speck of dirt in my condo, just the way I like it. I’m in control, I’m secure, I’m comfortable . . . except for this conversation.

  “She doesn’t necessarily run away when I have a panic episode.”

  “Has she seen one?”

  I think back to each of my encounters with her. She’s seen some of them—Target and at her apartment—and I think I’ve hidden some, like when I met her at the club and she had glitter stuck to her face. Being social, meeting people, having to put on a “normal” face sends panic through my brain. I don’t want to slip up; I don’t want to show my true colors. Being on guard around the clock is never easy. It’s actually pretty fucking tiring.

  “She’s witnessed two almost panic attacks but I’ve been able to control them.” I pause and think why I was able to control the panic from taking over my being. “Somehow, she’s known what to do or not to do, and the panic hasn’t overwhelmed me.”

  Coach is silent for a second; it’s obvious he’s mulling this over.

  “Say something,” I cut in, hating the silence.

  “Are you interested in her romantically?”

  And there it is, the question Eva keeps asking me.

  Am I? Obviously there is an attraction I can’t seem to put behind me now I’ve let myself accept my feelings for her, but I believe I would be a toxic addition to her easy-going, happy little world.

  “No,” I answer.

  “Are not interested because you don’t think she’s beautiful, inside and out, or because you’re too scared to let yourself be happy?”

  Why does this feel like a session with Dr. Auburn?

  “With all due respect, Coach, what does this have to do with swimming?”

  Without skipping a beat, he responds, “What do I always tell you about your mental game?”

  “That swimming can be eighty percent mental.”

  “Exactly.” He sighs. I can imagine him squeezing the bridge of his nose. “Ruby is a new addition to your daily life, and I can already see the positive way it is affecting your swimming. I need you to acknowledge this, to realize she’s had a positive impact on your sport, despite not seeing it right away.”

  “I see what you’re talking about, but you need to know it’s not going to be an everlasting thing. She’s just working with me on the foundation for now.”

  “And what will be your mental state when she’s no longer working with you?”

  Fucking good question.

  Last night when she texted me, a little piece of me—a piece I’ve never felt before—got excited from the prospect of talking to her sooner than expected. Presented with a rare opportunity, I concentrated on being a lighter version of myself, the same man who joked with her at her apartment. Unfortunately, our text messaging wasn’t very long. Was it me who made it awkward first? I’m damn good at doing that.

  Not sure what to say, I answer honestly. “I don’t know, Coach. All I know is I enjoy her company when she’s around.”

  “Fair enough.” Being the man he is, he asks, “This isn’t going to affect your swimming in a negative way, is it?”

  A laugh escapes me as I relax. Inquisition over. “No. Have I ever let anything bother my swimming?”

  Coach and I both know I haven’t. I’ve maintained a steady mental game my entire life. Even when my parents died I showed no difference in my swimming. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or if it’s some kind of early warning sign of a sociopath. When I’m in the pool, I zone out. It’s my one and only place where I can feel complete calm.

  “You haven’t, so don’t let this be the first.” His voice is light and teasing.

  “Nothing you have to worry about.”

  There is a knock on my door, and just like that, I can feel my entire body stiffen, knowing Ruby is on the other side.

  “Hey, I’ve got to go.”

  “Okay, you’ve got tomorrow off; use it wisely.”

  “Thanks, Coach.”

  Quickly I hang up. Standing, nerves shaking my bones, I feel the normal anxiety associated with holding a conversation.

  There is no need to do another sweep around the condo; I cleaned it three times before coach called making sure it was spotless. Everything is locked up for the night, I only have to worry about the door, and my nightly call to Eva has already been conducted. I called early, shocking the shit out of her and me. The only reason I broke my rule was because I didn’t want to have to talk to Eva when Ruby was here. Eva did promise to send another pic of her alarm at eighty thirty though to keep me at ease.

  Pizza is in the oven, table is set, water is chilled, and I even bought a six-pack of root beer, hoping she likes it. It’s the one and only soda I will indulge in every once in a while, and to top it off, I bought the ingredients to make a chocolate mousse out of coconut milk, topped with fresh raspberries. Those are chilling in the fridge as well.

  I have all my bas
es covered. Would my mom be proud?

  Crossing the apartment, I stick one hand in my jean pocket and open the door. Standing on the other side is Ruby with a bright smile on her face and a drenched yellow raincoat covering her head and body. The shoes she’s wearing are soaked and there is water all over her exposed legs.

  “Apparently the clouds decided to lose their bladders on my walk here. How are you?” Shaking off her coat, she holds it in one hand, stands on her tippy toes and wraps her free arm around me, embracing me in a small hug. Then without another word, she lets herself in.

  Fuck, my heart is hammering in my chest. The inability to move from her embrace is overwhelming, and I find myself staring into the hallway, trying to hold on to the warm feeling of Ruby wrapped around me.

  “Where can I hang my jacket? I don’t want to get water all over your place. It smells delicious in here. You really can cook. I can’t wait to have this pizza you spoke of.”

  Pulling my head out of my ass and back into the conversation, I shut the door, carefully stare at the lock as I maneuver it shut, and take a visual picture of me performing the act so I don’t panic later on.

  You locked the door, Bodi.

  It’s locked, you’re safe.

  Be present with Ruby, don’t retreat to a darker place.

  “Why did you walk here?”

  Fluffing her blonde hair with one hand, she smirks at me. Fuck, she’s so damn beautiful. “I didn’t walk from my apartment, just from the bus stop. My car is in the shop right now getting some part replaced. Who really knows what’s going on in that clunk of junk?”

  “You should have called me. I would have picked you up.”

  She waves me off. “Oh please, I would never bother you like that. The bus was fine, I only had two people offer me heroin and three men stick their hand up my skirt.”

  I don’t realize I’m grinding my teeth until she starts laughing and pats my cheek. “Ease up, I’m only kidding. But seriously, the bus was fun. There are so many different people out there.” Looking down, she frowns and then gives me a sheepish grin. “I’m getting water all over the place. I’m so sorry. It’s so clean and here I am, dirtying it up.”

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