Warning: This chapter contains depictions of violence.
A young man moved into the house next door. Watching the remodel take place was a painful reminder of the way the HOA meeting ended. Eliza was still unsettled about it. She had defended her position with conviction and strength, so why didn’t she feel better? Asia was her closest friend, and though she made herself ok with being at odds with the neighborhood, she did not enjoy the silent treatment. Robert only snapped at her the one time, but he too had been different. He spoke less—even for him—and got more involved with the twins than usual. Mary had not gotten over it yet. At least, when they saw each other at the mailbox, she turned up her nose.
Wednesday afternoon, Eliza and Robert were home together watching TV. Sometimes she missed running around after the twins in her spare time even though those days were stressful. Having a quiet, clean house was priceless.
The program they watched hadn’t end yet, but Robert turned off the television. It wasn’t like him to interrupt a show. “Are you all right, dear?”
He pulled in a long breath and looked at her somewhat painfully. She had never seen him so conflicted before. Whatever it was, she hoped it was something she could help him through.
“We have to talk about this, Lizzie.”
Not this again. “Robert…how many times must I tell you? I’m not going to–“
“I’m not talking about that.”
She exhaled the breath she held. “What then?”
He hesitated. What could be more painful than discussing her apology to Mary? “We need to talk about him.”
Though he was a man of few words, he was rarely cryptic. “What him are you referring to?” she asked through narrowed eyes.
She turned away from him.
“Lizzie…we never talked about it, and it’s still affecting you.”
A mix of anger and embarrassment crested on her like a giant wave. She balled her fists to stand firm against it. The feeling was so powerful, her body trembled. “You said we didn’t have to talk about it! You promised me!”
Why would he do this? Why make her relive the most humiliating experience of her life? Didn’t he love her? This was more than punishment. It wasn’t even atonement for her sins. He wounded her!
“That was then. And, I meant it. But…it’s time to talk about it, and I know you won’t talk to a professional.”
“Counseling?? You think I need therapy, Robert? How could you!”
“There’s nothing wrong with therapy! It’s just about talking through your problems!”
“So now I have problems? What else have you been thinking of me, Robert?” She felt so out of control. Between the memories flooding back and all the cases she had recently, it was hard to keep a cool head. As much as she hated him bringing this up, she was bound to confront her past at some point. Having this moment at home was for the best.
He closed his eyes and let out all the air in his lungs. “Lizzie…I love you. I would never do or say anything to hurt you.”
The conversation was taxing, but she nodded.
“Yes, I believe you have a problem. And I know it’s because of what happened. We should talk about it. Keeping it inside has done little good.”
The large living room had windows on every wall, and the natural light accented everything it touched. The ceilings were tall enough to cause a slight echo. Still, the walls closed in on her. “What if I don’t want to?”
His eyes bounced around as if he hadn’t prepared for that response. When he figured himself out, he closed his eyes again and uttered words that made her both proud and frightened at the same time. “I’m not going to give you that option.”
She gasped. “Robert…please!”
He shook his head.
“I beg you! I’ve done everything I know to do to forget about it. Please, don’t make me dig it up again!”
“I’m sorry, Lizzie. You need this. We need this.”
She closed her eyes, making the room feel even smaller. It was dark like the windows and doors had been removed. She couldn’t breathe. All she could see was him.
So many times, she questioned herself, trying to cast blame somewhere. But, she and Johnny Landgraab were an item. More than that. They had been discussing marriage after high school! She had no reason not to trust him, but still he ended up hurting her.
“You’ve been compensating.”
“Whatever for, Robert?” she barked. “Nothing happened!”
That word was like a bolt of lightning striking all the way into her soul. The few words her man spoke were often weighty. Part of her wanted to know more of his thoughts while the rest wanted him to shut up.
“I’ve been seeing it, but I didn’t recognize it until recently. I thought you became a cop to deal with guys like him, but it’s the power you want. Because he made you feel powerless.”
She couldn’t admit it, but he was more correct than he knew. It wasn’t just that one awful afternoon. She felt powerless her entire life from her parents’ lack of ambition to the lack of direction in her own life. Eliza had the most lackadaisical set of parents, and she always faulted them for her mediocre life. Her father, Simis Simovich, enjoyed watching television more than breathing while her mother, Fatima, had her head in the clouds, reliving her dreams of stardom. In her younger, single days, she played the guitar in a band and dreamed of making it big. But when she met Simis, she traded that dream for family life. Eliza had not a creative bone in her body and hated how her mother steered her toward music. She always wished they would have a second child so her mother could live vicariously through someone else.
There was more to life than cable TV and a nice house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, and she refused to settle for mediocrity. She wanted a grander life worthy of awe and gossip and thought her ticket to that life was Johnny Landgraab.
He was beautiful, smart, wealthy and had an entourage of swooning girls everywhere he went. She couldn’t even float near the circles he ran in, but some kind of way he sought her out. Naturally, she refused him several times. What did he want with her? He couldn’t have seen anything desirable in her freckled face, flaming red hair, thick glasses and frumpy clothes. She only went out with him so he would stop annoying her.
One date turned into what appeared to be a solid relationship. They were so much alike despite being from two different worlds. Education was high on both of their lists. Johnny had big dreams that deviated from his parents’ plans. Eliza didn’t have a specific dream yet, but as long as it involved her living in a large house and owning fine things she would go with it.
“Did you know…before…I didn’t have a plan for my life?” She thrust her hands in his face. “Do you know what that means, Robert?”
He gazed at her, anticipating the answer. The realization was too much, and she needed a moment to gather herself. Though they were home alone, and Robert was the only person with whom she could show weaknesses, she felt like a ninny and wished she were as strong as she purported to be. He pulled her into his arms, and she tried to will herself not to lose it but it was too late. Robert was right; he always was. Catharsis was long overdue. She thought it would make her weak, but all those years she ran away from the pain and embarrassment, never taking the time to grieve and get over the situation. Johnny controlled her the entire time. That made her weak.
“Everything I want…it all came from him! He gave my life purpose!” She felt so disgusted and low though getting it out lifted a burden she didn’t know she carried.
Robert’s expression went dark. “He didn’t give you anything except bad memories, Lizzie. He didn’t win then, so stop letting him win now.”
“How am I letting him win now?”
“You have to control everything! Your friends, this neighborhood, your job…our marriage.”
“So, what then? Move? Quit my job? Divorce you?” His suppressed chuckling startled yet disarmed her. She had never been so unraveled and realized how crazy she sounded. “Please don’t divorce me, Robert.”
He grinned. “I won’t if you won’t.” He kissed her cheek.
She snuggled up next to him still upset but feeling hopeful for the first time in forever. “What should I do?”
Her head rose and fell with the inhaling and exhaling of his chest. “I think you need to figure that out yourself. You can do one thing though.”
“Talk to Breanne. She put all her eggs in one broken basket. You don’t have to share your experience with her, but you have the experience to give her solid advice. She doesn’t accept it from me.”
At least one good thing came from the horror. Two good things: Life experience to help her daughter and Robert. They didn’t fly in the same circles either.
As the star player, she knew he didn’t know she existed and didn’t dare to even dream of him knowing her. Dreadful jocks. They only wanted the sacred thing from as many who would give it. She didn’t want him to know her. But, fatefully, he was in the gym that afternoon; he was so serious about his craft. He must have heard her scream. Robert wasn’t the fighting kind, but he grabbed Johnny and did what he had to do. The blonde disgrace ran away with a black eye. “This ain’t over,” he yelled.
Eliza hugged her legs and cried endlessly. She should have run away when she was free of Johnny, but her legs wouldn’t work. Robert handed her the shirt discarded next to her, but she couldn’t even put it on. She was so distraught; she didn’t even realize how exposed she was in front of the kind stranger. He sat next to her and draped a towel over her. It was such a thoughtful thing to do. “I’m sorry,” he said. No one had ever been so kind before. She didn’t know him or if she could even trust him, but she collapsed in his lap. He comforted her as much as he could. When the tears stopped, he told her he would leave so she could get dressed. “I’ll be right outside.”
Part of her didn’t want him to leave despite knowing she was alone while the other part was glad he left; he could have been a creep too. She dressed quickly, however, and ran back into the gym never to return again. Robert was waiting for her like he said he would.
He tried to smile. “Do you need a ride?”
He must have been insane to think she’d accept a ride from a stranger.
“I won’t hurt you. And, we don’t have to talk about it.”
His voice was so soothing like the chamomile tea she needed. He may have saved her virtue, but she didn’t owe him anything. She lived too far to walk, however, and never wanted to see the jerk who should have driven her home ever again. She could have called her parents, but then she’d have to explain why she was so upset. No. She wanted to be done with the incident and never speak of it again, so she accepted his generosity.
The following weeks, awkwardness followed them like a lost puppy. She saw him everywhere and didn’t realize how many classes they had together. He sat in the back with all the other clowns and delinquents while she held down the front row. His kind face was easy on the eyes. If he was such a nice guy, why did he hang with hooligans?
He stared at her a lot; she could feel it. When she’d turn around, he’d catch himself and look elsewhere. They had the same lunch period, and she could feel him staring at her then too. It was so unnerving. He didn’t need to keep looking out for her. It’s not like she was in danger anymore. She overheard the only reason Johnny went out with her was because someone bet him a lot of money he couldn’t get her to sleep with him. Being proved wrong must have hurt his pride because he went around school saying he did.
One day, she looked up from her lunch and saw Robert lowering himself on the seat in front of her. Pride rose inside. “I’m not a baby! You don’t have to keep watch over me you know!”
He took a bite of his lunch. “I know.”
She wasn’t expecting him to be so casual. “What do you want from me? Did someone dare you to come sit with me?”
“So, what then?”
He shrugged. “You’re alone.”
After a few lunches, she gave up on him leaving her alone and ignored him until she couldn’t ignore him anymore. One day, he worked on some math homework and got decidedly frustrated. She helped him, and that was how the ice of their budding friendship broke.
Months later, they were still getting to know each other, and she asked him what he planned to study in college. He laughed at her formality. “Robert is my dad. Just call me Bob.”
She smiled softly. “I prefer Robert. It’s a respectable name.”
Though surprised, he seemed to appreciate her reasoning. Her original question seemed to rattle him though. He looked around to see if anyone listened to them–especially his so-called friends at the jocks’ table. “I’ve never told anyone before.”
Excitement shot through her body like a firecracker racing to the sky. “Oh, please let me be the first!”
“Please don’t laugh or think…things about me.”
She frowned. “Robert! I could never laugh at someone’s dream.” At least he had a dream. Hers was typical and incomplete.
He seemed relieved though still nervous about sharing. He put his head down and spoke so low; she had to scoot closer to hear him. “I want to be a chef. I like cooking.” He spit it out and left it there as if he expected it to disgust her.
“Oh, Robert, that’s wonderful!”
“R-really? You think so?”
“You don’t think it’s…gay?”
She laughed. “All the famous chefs are straight men. I’m sure you’ll be one of them soon.”
Eliza and Robert had always supported each other and had each other’s backs even during the dead period when they were nothing more than roommates with occasional benefits. She had no idea how to handle this problem and halfway hated that Robert saw it and let it go on for so long despite knowing she wouldn’t hear it. But, through her flaws, pride, and all, he stuck by her and didn’t make her feel small. Whatever she did, he’d be with her every step of the way.
Note: If you found Eliza’s story intriguing, I plan to do a bonus chapter with Bob’s story and how they met from his perspective!