Stroked long, p.5
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       STROKED LONG, p.5

           Meghan Quinn

  Chapter Four


  “How’s your week been?” Dr. Auburn asks, holding his pen over his notepad, poised and ready to take notes.

  “Eventful,” I answer, staring at my hands in my lap.

  Therapy, even though it’s the right thing for me to do, is awful. I hate the sessions. Every time I talk to Dr. Auburn, a wave of anxiety takes over my entire body and all I want to do is flee, run for my damn life until the pain eases in my chest.

  But that’s not an option.

  I go to therapy not because I want to, and not because I feel like it’s helping, but because Eva has begged and pleaded with me to go.

  Has there been a change in my behavior over the past ten years of seeing Dr. Auburn—yes, ten years? Maybe. I still feel the pain of my parents’ death every day. I still carry the weight of their murder on my shoulders, and even though I’ve controlled some of my tendencies to help me function on an everyday level and compete in swimming, I still have obsessions that are not going anywhere anytime soon.

  “Eventful? Well, that’s a different word that I’m used to you saying.”

  Pinching my palm with my right hand, a nervous tick I have, I answer honestly, “We are starting a new foundation for the Boys and Girls Club. Eva has put me in charge along with someone else.”

  “A new journey, how does that make you feel?”

  “Nervous, anxious, out of control,” I answer. It’s the same feeling I have every time something new comes around. The unknown is the scariest feeling I will ever face. I know I can’t predict the future or see too far into it, but if I was given a superhuman strength, that would be mine, so I could prepare for the battle I’m about to face. Nothing makes me shiver more than facing something new and unfamiliar.

  “All the regular trepidations you face. Are you writing it down in your journal? How you’re feeling?”

  “No.” I fucking hate that piece-of-shit journal. It serves no purpose other than make me want to chuck it against the wall.

  “Why not?”

  “I don’t see how it helps. I just end up writing the same sentence three times in a row because I’m fucked up in the head.”

  Threes. It’s how I live my life and when I’m stressed and anxious, the way I conduct my life in threes weighs heavy on me. Unlock my car three times, pat myself dry after I get out of the pool three times, change in and out of my suit three times, do an exercise three times. It’s delayed my life but I’ve learned to accommodate, my coach has helped with that.

  “What have we talked about when you start doing repetitions? Have you assessed your mental status when you start doing everything in threes?”

  I’m not fucking stupid. I know when my repetition kicks in, when I’m stressed, anxious, and scared of the unknown. Jesus, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. But what’s killing me recently, all three have weighed heavily on me thanks to the upcoming games and this new project Eva started, causing me to pick up on repetition.

  “I know when I do it. I’m aware the kind of anxiety I have right now, but there is no way I can calm it. The games are coming up and working with someone else on this project is new. It . . .” I pause for a second as I try to think about my feelings. I continue to pinch my palm, now doing short bursts of threes. “It terrifies me.”

  Dr. Auburn makes a note as he nods his head. “Does the new endeavor terrify you, or does working with someone else terrify you?”

  Does a quirky blonde with brown-rimmed glasses and the inability to stop talking terrify me?

  More than I care to admit.

  “Working with someone else.”

  “Okay.” He nods. “Have you met this person yet?”


  Dr. Auburn lifts his head and looks at me over his glasses. Pushing them up his nose and then carefully folding his hands on top of each other, he gives me a questioning once over. “Care to talk about this person? Is it a girl?”

  He gets straight to the point. I should have known better.

  “It is a girl.” I clear my throat, reminding myself I’m in a safe place and talking to Dr. Auburn is a good thing, and he’s not here to judge. “Her name is Ruby Hearts. She’s friends with my sister.”

  “Friends with Eva? Does that give you comfort?”

  “More comfort than if it was a random person that has no connection to my family, but I still feel . . . uncomfortable.”

  “Why are you uncomfortable?”

  I sigh and pull on the brim of my hat, trying to not lash out at Dr. Auburn. “I’m not comfortable working closely with people I don’t know. I don’t want them to notice . . .” I trail off, not wanting to admit the rest of what I was about to say.

  “You don’t want her to notice your ticks?”


  It’s bad enough I have poor social skills. I don’t need Ruby seeing all the little idiosyncrasies that make me who I am.

  There are characteristics in every human that make them unique, that separate us from all being the same person in this world full of life. For example, Ruby is quirky, smiley, excited about every new adventure. At least she seems like she is. Those are all positive qualities. Me? I count, I clean, I become paranoid over every little thing. To me, those are ugly characteristics, ones that drive people away, not closer.

  Why would I want someone to get close enough to find that out?

  When it first happened, my friends tried to be kind. Their parents were kind. My teachers were kind. Everyone was fucking kind. I didn't deserve kind. It was all my fault. They all should have been angry at me. I was angry. I couldn't talk to them. And eventually, they weren't kind anymore. I would hear their words about me. Freak. Loser. And when I just got better and better at swimming, those taunts grew more vicious. Arrogant. Bastard. Self-righteous. Asshole Bodi Stoneman Banks. Frozen heart. Made sense. I didn't deserve their kindness. I still don't. It was all my fault. Why would anyone want to get close to that?

  “I’m not really a prize to be won or anything,” I say honestly.

  Yes, I might be one of the most decorated Olympic swimmers in history, but by no means am I a normal functioning human behind the façade the public thinks they know. I’ve been able to train my mind for situations such as interviews and training kids at the pool because it’s a scenario I’m used to. I just put my brain on autopilot and do what I need to do, but new scenarios, new people, new . . . feelings, those are things I can’t possibly handle without showing my true colors.

  “That’s not positive self-talk, Bodi,” Dr. Auburn reminds me. “Is Ruby someone you want to impress? From your inflection, it sounds like maybe she is.”

  Feelings for a woman? Now this is territory I most definitely don’t want to get into. It’s actually something I don’t ever really want to think about; I can’t mentally afford to think about such a thing. To bring someone else into my life, to worry about them just as much as I worry about Eva and Lauren, I don’t think my heart could take it.

  But then . . .

  I can’t keep those big brown eyes out of my head.

  “What do you think about curtains?” I ask, ignoring Dr. Auburn’s question.

  “Pardon me?” he asks, a little thrown from my question.

  “Curtains.” I rub my palms on my jeans. “Are they a necessity?”

  Dr. Auburn takes off his glasses and studies me, probably trying to read my train of thought. I glance up quickly but then look back down, not wanting to give anything away.

  Pointing at me with his glasses, he says, “You’re deflecting. I’m going to take it that Ruby means something to you but you’re not quite ready to admit it.”

  My heart starts to beat faster in my chest, my breath hitches in my throat, and I can feel panic start to ensue me. “She means nothing,” I say quickly, rubbing my palms harder on my jeans. “She’s just someone I have to work with.”

  Sensing my anxiety, Dr. Auburn sets his notepad down and leans forward, his elbows on his thig
hs and kindness in his eyes. “Breathe through this, Bodi. Take deep, long breaths. Steady that racing heart and calm your nerves. I don’t want to upset you, but I want you to notice and learn from your reactions right now. Your heart rate is elevated, your breathing is heavy, your palms are sweaty; what is that telling you?”

  “That I’m about to have a panic attack.”

  “Good. Now, I’ve known you for quite a long time,” he talks in a very soothing voice, a voice he only uses when I’m on the verge of teetering into a panic attack. “Whenever you’re like this, it’s because I’ve hit a soft spot with you, a topic you’re not comfortable talking about just yet, one you’re not ready to open up about. I get that. Talking about someone new is hard, quite difficult for you actually, but it’s important to recognize that Ruby does seem to be a trigger for you. Can you agree with me on that statement?”

  Hating that he’s right, but knowing I need to acknowledge him, I nod my head.

  “May I ask a few very simple questions to help with talking about her? If you start to get anxious again, we can stop, but I would really like to work through this with you. Is that okay?”

  I nod again, my breathing starting to even out.

  “Thank you. Tell me, what color is her hair?”

  “Blonde.” It’s a simple question to answer, one that eases me some more.

  “What color are her eyes?”

  “Brown with some gold.”

  “Sounds pretty. What does she do?”

  “Um, works at the Boys and Girls Club.”

  “Nice. How are you feeling?”

  “Okay.” I shrug. Not really sure where he’s going with this line of questioning.

  Can he just get this over with so I can leave?

  “Is she nice?”



  “I don’t know,” I answer, starting to get irritated. I shift in my seat, and Dr. Auburn must notice my nervousness because he sits back and takes a quick note on his pad.

  “Can I ask one more question?”


  “The curtains. Does that question have anything to do with Ruby?”

  I think back to when Ruby was in my condo, surveying my space. She wasn’t judgmental, more observational than anything, taking in her surroundings. I’ve never been one to decorate a house. I use it as a space to live in. You know that saying: a house is built with boards and beams, a home is built with love and dreams. I have a house, not a home.

  But there is something that stuck with me when Ruby was visiting, something I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Curtains are a “protective shield” to her. Protection, safety, invisibility, that’s what I strive for when I’m in my condo. She struck a chord with me.

  Should I have curtains?

  Would she appreciate my place more if I had curtains?

  What would she say if she saw them?

  Why do I care?

  “Bodi,” Dr. Auburn presses, catching me from falling too deep into thought.

  “Um, yeah. Sort of. Just thinking of doing some remodeling.” The lie is so blatant, Dr. Auburn starts chuckling as he shifts in his seat, causing a very light smile to tickle my lips.

  “Okay, good to know.”


  This is way too complicated, and I’m pretty sure people are taking pictures of me. Or maybe that’s just me being paranoid.

  Probably the latter.

  I have three different kinds of curtain rods in my arms, all different sizes because I came to Target on an impulse and didn’t measure any window in my condo. After I left Dr. Auburn’s office, I told myself I needed to get toilet paper so I drove to Target, knowing in the back of my mind I had no intention of picking up toilet paper thanks to the stockpile I have in my linen closet. I always have three stacks of three waiting to be used.

  I traipsed around the store for a short amount of time, my hands in my pockets, perusing the Blu-ray discs for longer than I should have but then finally gave in and headed to housewares where I’ve been stuck for at least half an hour.

  Why are there so many options?

  Do I really need curtains?

  Ruby says they’re a protective shield, that she couldn’t live without them. Why does that keep repeating over and over in my head? It’s been on replay ever since she came over, and when I saw her in the coffee house, it only made the voice in my head stronger as I watched her laugh and joke with Eva. Even though her eyes were bright with excitement as she talked to my sister, they were nothing compared to when they looked at me.

  From under the bill of my hat, I could see the intrigue in her gaze, I could see the spark in her pupils when I came up with the name for the gala we will be hosting, and I saw the gold of her irises sing with joy when I shook her hand goodbye.

  For some odd reason, this girl is starting to get under my skin, and I’m not sure I like it at all.

  “Fuck,” I mutter, looking down at my collection of curtain rods and then turn to the curtains.

  White, grey, or black?

  Squatting down, I rest the curtains rods on the ground and pick out three different panels; the first is plain white that looks like a gauzy material. The second one is plain grey in a heavier material that looks like it would block out all the sun, and the third is black and white zigzag print which seems almost too fucking girly for me.

  Squatting to the ground, I lay them all out on the ground next to the curtain rods and examine them next to the brass. I study the textures and how they mesh along with the multiple combinations I could make with the panels and the rods.

  “I have no fucking clue.” I sigh in frustration, scoop everything up and turn to purchase them because I can’t decide just as I run into a cart, knocking me backward, curtains and rods scattering to the floor in a loud clash.

  “Geeze oh petes!” a lady says as she comes around her cart. “Bodi?”

  Looking up, I see those big brown eyes staring down at me, a kind, yet humorous look in her face.


  “Hey,” I say, scrambling around to gather my things. The heat of embarrassment from being plowed over by a shopping cart caresses my cheeks.

  “I didn’t even see you there. I’m so sorry.”

  “Not a problem.”

  She’s squatting next to me, trying to gather my items as I turn to kneel to accomplish the same thing, clean up the spill of curtain assembly everywhere.

  My items finally register in her mind because she stills and sits up, looking at a panel in her hand. Turning to me, she asks, “Are you getting curtains?”

  “Sort of,” I gruff out, more embarrassment washing over me. Does she remember suggesting them to me in my condo?

  “It seems like you have a lot of options here.”

  “Couldn’t make up my mind.”

  “Need help?”

  I’m reaching for a small tension rod when I still from her offer.

  Need help?

  Yes, I need so much fucking help, but I don’t want to ask for it. I don’t want to show vulnerability, and I sure as hell don’t want to welcome her into my brand of crazy.

  “Nah, I’m good.”

  Taking the remaining items from her, I situate them in my arms, feeling clumsy as fuck, and give her a curt nod.

  “All right. Well, if you need help, let me know. I’m excited for you.”

  Excited about curtains? That seems odd to me, but I brush it off and start down the aisle.

  “Oh you dropped your wallet,” she calls out, chasing me down. “Can’t get all those items without a form of payment. Doubtful you can get away with paying with that winning smile of yours.”

  I don’t smile. What is she talking about?

  She snaps her finger in disappointment. “Darn, I was hoping I would get a peek at it. You’re a tough shell to crack.” She holds up my wallet and wiggles her eyebrows. “Want me to slip it in your pocket for you?”

  My eyebrows shoot up from her suggestion, causing
her to throw her head back and laugh.

  “Oh Bodi, you’re awesome.” Fuck does she have me pegged wrong.

  She continues to laugh and, even though it’s at my expense, the joyful sound echoes through my ears and registers as an almost angelic noise.

  I fucking like it.

  Placing the wallet in my hand, she steps back and points at one of the rods in my arms. “The tension rod will never work for the kind of curtains you seem to be looking at, and watch out with those white plastic things. They seem inexpensive and like a good bargain, but the minute you hang them up on the wall, they are going to look very cheap in that nice and pristine condo of yours.” With a sweet smile, she adds, “Good luck,” and then goes back to her cart.

  Shit. I don’t want the curtains to look cheap.

  “Hey, Ruby,” I call out before I can stop myself.

  She spins on her heel, hand on her hip, with a knowing smile. “Let me guess, you want my help?”

  I gulp and nod just as she clasps her hands, her dress swaying like a bell with her movements. Is it weird to think she looks adorable in those dresses? I’ve seen at least seven of them already, all colorful with sleeves and prints. I don’t know anything about fashion, but what I do know is the dresses she wears frame her body perfectly.

  “Let’s start from the beginning. We need to put this all back; it’s not what you want.” She brings her cart in front of me and makes me drop everything in it. “We will put it back as we walk along. Now tell me, Bodi, are we just going to start you out easy? Maybe do one window and see how you like it? Or do you want to go all out?”

  “One window,” I say quickly, still unsure if I want to go through with this.

  They’re just fucking curtains, don’t freak out.

  “Smart choice.” Looping her hand through my arm, she guides me to the curtain panels where she starts looking through the plethora of options displayed. Still holding on to me, she sifts through the ones on display, touching every one of them and talking about their texture and opacity.

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