Stroked long, p.31
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       STROKED LONG, p.31

           Meghan Quinn
 

  “I can’t drag her down, Eva. I can’t make her live this fucked-up life with me. She deserves more.”

  “She deserves you,” Eva says with conviction. “It’s about time you realize that.” Standing up, she tucks her hair behind her ears and looks down at me. “I’m not going to baby you anymore, Bodi. I’m done. It’s time you move on. It’s time we both move on. Starting now, no more calls at eight thirty, no more security text messages. Trust that I’m acting safely. As for you, take your sessions with Dr. Auburn seriously and try to heal your heart, stop ripping it open. An incredible woman loves you and wants to be a part of your life, the crazy fucked-up one you didn’t dare mention to her. Newsflash: she knows and she still wants you. It’s time, Bodi. Do our parents justice and make them proud.”

  Do our parents justice? I’ve tried to do that with my swimming. Make them proud . . . But I killed them. It was my fault. Tears stream down my face. I don’t like this pain. It hurts. How can I make them proud? How can not checking on my sister make them proud? I failed them. I’ve tried not to fail her. Do our parents justice. A sob breaks free and Eva brings my head to her stomach. Cradles me to her and rocks me. Like Mom used to.

  “I miss them, Eva. It hurts.”

  “Yes, Bodi. It does hurt. And it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to feel.”

  I haven’t felt. Until Ruby. So many years of shutting feelings down and locking them away. It hurts.

  After allowing me to sob—to hurt—for a few minutes, she squats down once more, grips my forearm, and says, “If you can be one of the best swimmers on this planet, then you can overcome these demons. I believe in you, and it’s time you believe in yourself. I love you, Bodi.” She takes a breath and then continues. “The gala is in a week. I won’t cover for you. You will be there, and you will put on your best face. Don’t let me down.”

  She kisses the top of my head and pulls five boxes out of her purse. My medals. She sets them on the entryway table and leaves, locking the doors from the outside.

  Her words race through my head. No more phone calls? No more checking in? My skin already starts to itch from the thought, and then I think about what she said last.

  The gala.

  Fuck, I completely forgot about it. Will Ruby be there?

  Will she try to talk to me?

  Does she hate me?

  Of course she does. You were a fucking monster to her; there’s no way she loves you now.

  ***

  “How are you feeling?”

  “How does it look like I’m feeling?” Fucking miserable.

  Dr. Auburn assesses my ragged appearance and sets his pen down on his notepad. Steepling his fingers at his chin, he says, “You look like shit.” I’ve known Dr. Auburn long enough to have this open dialogue with him. His comment doesn’t affect me.

  I do look like shit. I’m wearing a pair of sweats, an old T-shirt, and I haven’t shaved in a few days. I’ve spent my time off from the pool scrubbing every orifice of my house, locking and unlocking my doors and windows for hours, and I’ve declined every single post-Olympic interview, claiming family emergencies.

  Fuck interviews right now. I know I owe it to my country to show off the hardware I brought home for them, but if I can barely get my ass out of my house for the emergency meetings scheduled with Dr. Auburn, how can I possibly show up to a production set and put on a good face for morning and late night talk shows? There are others who can fill in for me, like Reese King.

  I lean back on the couch, my legs wide, and my hand plastered against my forehead as I close my eyes. “I’m barely functioning.”

  “What do your days look like? Are they the same?” This is my second visit with Dr. Auburn since I returned home, since I completely destroyed Ruby, since Eva told me to stop calling her, fucking me up more than I’ve ever been. I know she said not to call, but I still do, and she doesn’t answer.

  Fucking torture.

  Eight thirty rolls around and I find myself rocking back and forth on my couch, wiping my sweaty palms on my pants, wishing for a text from Eva that she’s okay. I spend the next half hour running through my house, making up for the phone call I never received by fucking around with my locks and alarm system. I’m so consumed and obsessed with the safety of my condo I can’t even remember what day it is.

  “I can’t stop my obsessive habits. I spend hours repeating them over and over again. I want to fucking stop. I want it all to be over but when I attempt to stop, I have a panic attack. Fucking vicious circle.”

  Dr. Auburn nods. “Let’s go back to where this is coming from. You said you had flashbacks of the night you lost your parents.” Of the night I killed my parents, but I don’t correct him, I know better by now.

  “Yeah.”

  “This was the same night you couldn’t get a hold of Eva. What about the day you didn’t know where Ruby was, out on the beach, any flashbacks then?”

  “I don’t want to talk about Ruby,” I say curtly.

  “I understand the need to put her behind you, but I suggest we dig a little deeper with her. She’s a big factor in all of this. You care for her.”

  “I love her,” I say on a disheartened sigh.

  “Do you want her back in your life?”

  I want nothing more than to have Ruby in my arms, to get lost in the sincerity of her gaze, the warmth of her heart, but that doesn’t mean I deserve her.

  “Doesn’t matter, it’s over.”

  Dr. Auburn takes a different approach. “Tell me about the beach. Were you having flashbacks of your parents then?” I knew the bastard wasn’t going to drop Ruby as he never gives in to my demands. He pushes me to uncomfortable lengths.

  “No. But after that, I started to have them.”

  My vision starts to blur, the distinct smell of that beach hits me, pedestrians walking around me as I sprint to get to her. Bang after bang goes off in my head.

  The cool porcelain brands my skin.

  Bang. Bang.

  I’m in a tub.

  Bang. Bang.

  I’m in a tub but instead of hearing my mom’s scream, I hear Ruby’s.

  Bang. Bang.

  Over and over again, her screaming for help.

  “Bodi.” Dr. Auburn calls from a distance, or what feels like a distance. “Bodi, do you need a trashcan?”

  My stomach rolls. I nod.

  A generic plastic trashcan is placed in front of me just in time for my protein shake to reappear.

  ***

  “How are you doing today?”

  “You’re the doctor, you tell me,” I say, resting my elbow on the arm of the couch to prop my head up. I’m fucking exhausted. Sleep eludes me, night terrors take over when I do sleep, and the constant anxiety of the change in routine eats me alive.

  Why won’t Eva answer her phone at eight thirty?

  Why is my condo never clean enough?

  Why can’t I stop hearing Ruby’s screams in my head?

  “I can’t tell you how you feel, Bodi. I can tell you how you look, and honestly, you look worse than yesterday.”

  Yup, my visits are daily now. It’s the one routine in my life, and I’m gripping on to it for dear life.

  “Not digging the beard?” I ask with no humor in my voice.

  “It’s not you. Neither are the dark circles under your eyes or your haggard appearance.”

  I shrug. “Who the fuck cares?”

  “You should care, Bodi.”

  I shrug. There is no use in caring anymore. When I care, I get turned down. I care about Eva, but she’s punishing me. She’s making my life a living hell. I just want to know if she’s okay.

  “Have you heard from your sister?”

  “Does it look like I have?” I snap, tossing the pillow that’s sitting in my lap across the room. Dr. Auburn doesn’t flinch.

  “Throwing pillows is not going to get you anywhere, Bodi.”

  I shake my head as I pinch my brow. “Wow, and I’m paying for this shit.”


  ***

  “You’re wearing jeans today.”

  I feel the rough denim scrape my palms as I rub my hands up and down my legs. “The rest of my clothes are dirty.”

  “You’re not doing your laundry? That’s not like you, Bodi.”

  “Yeah, cleaning doesn’t seem to work for me anymore.”

  “What do you mean by that?” Dr. Auburn has his pen poised, ready to take notes, and all I want to do is take that pen and shove it the fuck up his nose.

  “I’m so sick of these fucking questions,” I exhale, slouching on the couch across from Dr. Auburn.

  “Okay, then what do you want to talk about?”

  “Nothing. I want to talk about nothing. I just want to sit in silence.”

  “Then let’s sit in silence.”

  ***

  “Jeans again, still haven’t gotten to your laundry?”

  I cross my ankle over my knee and place one of the throw pillows on the couch over my lap. “Nah, I did it last night.”

  He raises an eyebrow at me. “You decided to dress up for me?”

  “Have to for someone.” There is no life to my voice as I speak.

  “Tomorrow is the gala.” He says it more as a statement rather than a question. I nod. “Are you going?”

  Am I going? Good fucking question. Do I want to go to a social event where I’m predestined to have some kind of panic attack from being in a room with donors wanting to talk to me about the Olympics? Not fucking appealing whatsoever.

  But Eva will be there. You will be there and you will put on your best face. Don’t let me down.

  Ruby.

  Fuck, Ruby will be there and what I wouldn’t give to catch a glimpse of her, to see her beautiful face one more time. The thought of seeing her puts my foot one step closer to attending. Too bad I know it will be a masochistic move since I won’t do anything about my feelings for her.

  I shrug, still unsure of my decision.

  “What are your reasons for not going?”

  “Don’t want to have a panic attack.”

  “That’s a valid reason. Have you had one recently?”

  “No,” I answer honestly.

  “And your obsessions, are they subsiding?”

  “No, I still do them.”

  “To the extent that you were?”

  “No.”

  “That’s progress, Bodi.”

  It’s not progress. No, it’s called being exhausted out of my goddamn mind.

  ***

  “Are you going tonight?”

  I’ve wavered between going to the gala and not going all day. I got one hour of sleep, which is showing gravely.

  “I don’t know.”

  “Okay, do you want to go over the pros and cons of attending?”

  “Honestly, no.” I adjust my position on his couch. “I don’t want to think or talk about that today.”

  “That’s fine. What do you want to talk about?”

  I take a deep breath and close my eyes, leaning my head against the back of the couch. Dr. Auburn waits patiently.

  “When I used to say goodnight to my dad, instead of asking for a hug, I would shake his foot. It was fucking weird, but it was our family’s thing. Give Mom a hug, shake Dad’s foot, and go to bed. For the longest time I thought Dad was more of an uncle than anything. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized he would sneak into our room at night and kiss us goodnight when we were asleep. I can feel his large warm hand stroke my forehead and whisper in my ear that he loves me before placing a kiss on my forehead. That night, he didn’t kiss me good night. He didn’t get a chance to.”

  “He loved you, Bodi.”

  “I know.” I keep my eyes closed, one vision flashing behind my eyelids. “I miss him. I miss family movie nights. I miss my mom’s laugh and the way she would tease my dad. I miss her smile, and his boisterous laugh.” I pause for a moment because I’m struggling to breathe. I don’t like this pain. “I miss the shaking of his foot, the warm embrace of my mom, the late-night kisses from my dad . . . but do you know what I fucking miss more?” I don’t give him a chance to answer. “I miss my Rubes, and that fucking terrifies me.”

  “You don’t want to lose her like you lost your parents.” I nod. “That’s why you’ve associated your scare with her at the beach with the attack on your parents. At that moment, you realized she’s the most important thing in your life, and losing her will hurt more than when you lost your parents.”

  Fucking dead on.

  “Accepting your feelings threw you into a tailspin, am I right, Bodi?” I nod. “And no matter how many times you lock the doors, the windows, or clean your apartment, nothing will seem routine to you anymore because your routine has changed. Your routine adapted. Reshaped itself. Your routine now includes loving and caring for Ruby.”

  “It was,” I correct him. “It was loving and caring for Ruby. Now, I have no clue what it is.” Now nothing makes sense, and I don’t have a reason to breathe.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  RUBY

  “You look stunning, Ruby,” Lauren compliments as she pulls me into a hug.

  “You as well.” Both Lauren and Eva showed up in beautiful long, black dresses. Whereas Eva’s has a plunging neckline, Lauren’s cuts straight across her chest, giving little hint to any cleavage. They are such a beautiful couple; it’s hard not to stare at them.

  “Where did you get your dress?”

  I smooth down the red silk and say, “A vintage shop. I saw it in the window and knew it would be perfect.”

  And it is. It has a high neckline but completely bare in the back. The mermaid style hugs my hips and flares out at my thighs, giving me just enough room to maneuver my legs in the tall velvet heels I chose to wear. Not wanting to be too fancy, I curled my hair in very loose waves, ran some styling wax through it, and let my bangs lay against my forehead. To top it off, I painted my eyelashes with a heavy coat of mascara and decorated my lips with bright red lipstick.

  I wanted to feel pretty. After a week of utter devastation full of missed meals, tear-soaked pillowcases, and zero communication with the man who owns my heart, I wanted to do something for me. I FaceTimed with my friend Andrea while I got ready so I wasn’t alone, and the entire time she begged me to tell her what happened between Bodi and me. I kept it simple; it didn’t work out. I didn’t think it would be fair to air Bodi’s issues to someone he didn’t know. That’s his story, not mine.

  Now I’m at the gala, surrounded by the paintings hanging on the walls in vivid colors, depicting the signature strokes of Olympic athletes and some of the swimmers from the Boys and Girls Club. I can’t help but feel an empty pride.

  I’m proud of what I was able to help put together, but I also feel empty because half an hour into the event and the one person I wanted to see didn’t show up.

  Ever since I arrived, I’ve been wandering aimlessly, an untouched glass of champagne in my hand and a heavy, splintered heart resting in my chest. Just one look, one exchange, that’s all I wanted. Something to keep me moving forward through these slow, monotonous days.

  “You look gorgeous and this space . . . I can’t believe how well everything has come together,” Eva says in awe.

  “I had a lot of help from Lola.” I look around for her but can’t find her. “She’s around here somewhere. She works at the club and was looking for some more experience. I couldn’t have done it without her.” Especially since Bodi cut me out and left me hanging to finish this project by myself. I’m not mad. I’m more concerned. Lonely. Bereft. Aching.

  I hope he’s okay.

  “Please be sure to introduce me later. I want to thank her.”

  “I will.” I smile but know it doesn’t reach very far. Eva notices.

  She places her hand on my forearm and asks, “How have you been?”

  I take a deep breath and say, “Not well, but I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to celebrate the arts tonight.”

  It’s
true, I want to celebrate the foundation and what we’ve accomplished, but a huge part of me wants to see him. I want to ask Eva how he’s doing, if she’s talked to him, if she’s seen him, but I can’t open that floodgate. I will end up sobbing in a corner for the rest of the night. Gala attendees will think I’m some kind of pathetic attempt at live art, portraying a pathetic and desolate woman. Not the way I want to spend my evening. Not quite the look I was going for either.

  “I can appreciate that.” Eva looks around and sighs. “I wish he would have shown up. I guess I have myself to blame.” What happened to not talking about it? “I decided not to enable his obsessions anymore, and I have a feeling my tactic backfired.” There is worry in her eyes. Poor, Eva.

  “Let’s not focus on that tonight.” I plaster on a fake smile. “Let’s celebrate your mom’s dedication to the club and get these rich folk to donate some money.”

  She smiles as Lauren links their arms together. “Sounds like a plan. Thank you again, Ruby. If I would have known how this would turn out, I never would have pushed you two together.”

  I hold up my hand. “Don’t blame yourself. We’re good.” I fight back the tightness in my throat and say, “I’m going to check on the kitchen and see if they’re doing all right with the finger foods. If you see a girl in a purple dress with big black flowers, that’s Lola. Be sure to introduce yourself.”

  “Thank you.”

  Shuffling through the throngs of people gushing over different paintings and passing some of the athletes who were able to attend, I find my way to the kitchen where the staff is bustling around, filling trays and adding final touches to the little bites I picked out for the night. Nothing too filling, just a little snack for those who might be hungry.

  I lean against an out-of-the-way wall and try to calm my stomach. This is not how I pictured this night going so many weeks ago. I envisioned my hand looped through Bodi’s arm, his side pressed up against mine, his lips at my temple, kissing me every once in a while for a job well done. I envisioned him introducing me to his fellow swimmers as his girlfriend and spending the night getting lost in his velvety, deep voice.

 
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