Stronger

He stood at the end of the hallway watching her as she flitted about the room. She always had this way of doing things so daintily – even greeting guests at her all-important book signing. Sensing she was being watched, she looked up and met his eyes. He knew it unnerved her that he was there; it gave him some sort of satisfaction knowing that he still got to her.

She made her way down the hall with determination. How dare he show up today? He knew what today was; he knew how important this day was to her. She knew he showed up solely so he could mess with her head. She refused to allow him to do that to her though.

“What are you doing here, Landon?” she asked, placing her hands firmly on her hips.

“I came to wish you luck, Jennifer,” he responded in a condescending tone.

She shivered the second he spoke. These days, she likened his voice to nails on a chalkboard. She hated the sound. She hated the way he treated her like a child, though she was nearly four years older. She still cursed herself for wasting so much time on him. It was seven years of her life she would never get back.

“You came to mess with me, Landon,” she said.

“Believe what you will, Jen, but I am here solely to wish you the best of luck,” he said once more, folding his arms over his chest.

He noted, then, that something was glinting off of her ring finger. It was a diamond – a rather large diamond – and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed it until now. Surely she hadn’t moved on that fast, had she?

She looked to where his eyes had gone and rolled her eyes. Of course he would take note of her new piece of jewelry. Landon Fabian always won; no matter what the competition, he always came out on top.

“He’s in there, isn’t he?” Landon asked.

“He is in there,” Jennifer responded tiredly.

“So you were screwing him behind my back,” he said.

“No,” she replied. “I was not screwing anyone behind your back, Landon. Of course I see how you would think that. You have this tendency to always be a victim.”

“Right, because you were always so sweet and innocent, Jennifer,” he threw back at her.

“I don’t have time for this, Landon,” she said. “I have an autograph signing today. I have a wedding to plan. I have about a zillion memories of you to erase.”

“I’m not that easy to get rid of,” he countered. “Though I suppose that’s what the new boyfriend is for. Sheesh, you moved on fast.”

“I’ve known him since we were five,” she responded, her voice growing louder. “He’s been my best friend for over twenty years. He was the one who showed up to the hospital when I lost our baby. Do you remember? The baby I lost when you were off screwing some girl in Hong Kong.”

“Oh I remember that weekend very well,” he said. “It was the weekend I was busting my ass to get home because you were having a miscarriage. Must you make me out to be the bad guy all the time?”

“And the victim rears his ugly head,” she replied then, throwing her hands up in the air.

“I’m not being a victim, Jennifer,” Landon said to her. “You are being a tad bit dramatic, though, don’t you think?”

“You want to know how long it took me to trust him?” She asked. “Do you want to hear the details about how he spent months trying to get me to just give him a chance? About how I left the city and went back to Texas because I needed to get away from every memory of you? You were literally lurking around every corner.”

“Right, because I just moved right along from you,” he replied. “I just jumped into bed with the first woman I met.”

“That’s exactly what you did,” Jennifer said then. “You made me feel awful for seven years because my best friend was a guy and you were out trying to get as much tail as possible.”

“How long after we broke up did you get with him?” He asked. “I mean, it’s been about two years, and you’re already engaged to him.”

“He spent six months trying to get me to go out with him,” she responded. “He has spent the last two years trying to fix everything that you broke. I am not about to apologize for being happy with someone.”

He wanted to respond. He really did, but he honestly had no idea what to say. He came here today to rattle her cage; to make her nervous. He came here to shake her world up and turn it upside down. She had every right to be this defensive about her new relationship.

“Landon I think you should go,” Jennifer said then. “I think you should go and you should never contact me again. Please.”

“You just want me all out of your life then? You want to forget the seven years we spent together?” He questioned.

She nodded in response. “I do. I want you to move on. I want you to move on like I did. Find someone who makes you happy – if that’s even a possibility.”

He pursed his lips. Of course she had to get one last dig in. Of course she had to point out that he had been completely awful to her for the duration of their relationship. What right did she have to make that comment?

She had already turned to leave before he could say something – anything – to make her turn around. She was making her way back down the hall at lightning speed. He took off at a sprint to catch up to her.

He grabbed her arm, and she jerked it away. “You don’t want to kiss me good-bye?”

She rolled her eyes, willing herself to not slap him. “I don’t want anything to do with you, Landon. I want you to leave and I wanted to move on with my life – with Hunter.”

“Ah, yes, Hunter,” he said. “Perfect Hunter with his perfect smile and his perfect laugh and the perfect way he treats you.”

“Exactly,” she replied, unfazed by what he had said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Landon, I have a book signing to get to. And you have someone else’s life to ruin, I think.”

She waved him off then, making her way back down the hallway. He was grasping at straws to get her to turn around. He needed to make one final dig – something that would really get under her skin. Surely she hadn’t moved on so quickly from the damage he’d caused.

“You’ll never find anyone else like me,” he called out to her.

She stopped then, and he knew he’d gotten her. He just knew she was getting ready to unleash her rage on him. This was the moment he had been waiting for. He held back a smile as she turned around slowly. He was giddy with the anticipation of what she would say.

“Well,” she began. “That’s kind of the point. Good-bye, Landon.”

She turned around once more and made her way into the large room. Landon stood and watched as she welcomed her guests and made small talk with them.

The next day, newspaper headlines read: “BILLIONAIRE’S WIDOW RELEASES TELL-ALL BOOK.

all too well

The brisk New York air was a nice change of pace from the chilled winter we’d just endured.  Nonetheless, I wore my jacket, because I could hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me that I’d catch a cold for wearing nothing over my grey tank top.  I had no scarf, though, and could not for the life of me remember where I’d seen it last.

I had reached my destination, however; and as I entered the restaurant, all thoughts of my missing scarf were replaced with older ones – thoughts of a time that had long since passed.

***

                “You’ll love my sister, Alison, I swear.”

                I smiled at him, too in love with him to not get caught up in his excitement.  I threw my jacket and scarf on the bed, allowing him to take my hand and pull me downstairs.

                “Can’t believe I’m meeting your sister before I meet your parents,” I said to him as he led me down the hallway.

                He turned to me and smiled. “You’ll have fun.  I swear.”

***

He loved to swear to me – that I’d love something; that I’d have fun; that I would never regret it – whatever it was, precisely, I couldn’t say for certain.

“Ali!”

My best friend was a giant bundle of energy, and I allowed her to pull me into a tight hug and a dance around our table before we finally sat down next to one another.  She shook her knee and drummed her fingernails on the table, regaling me with stories of her recent trip abroad.

“And their traffic lights are exactly like ours!”

I smiled at her, laughing at her description of another country, while my mind went back to that time long, long ago…

***

                “You have a beautiful voice, Ali, you should do something with it.”

                I smiled at him, in awe that this beautiful person – inside and out – was looking at me like I was the only person in the world.  I looked up just in time, thankfully.

                “Red light!”

                He slammed on the brakes, and laughed heartily at his mistake.  I smiled at him, interlacing our fingers.  He kissed my hand as we sat and waited for the light to change again.

***

“Let’s go dance, Ali!”

I smiled at my best friend as she pulled me onto the dance floor.  I didn’t see – nor did I pay any mind to – the men at the bar who were eyeing me with amazement and audacity.  They didn’t understand my happiness, I suppose; or why I was allowing this short, fragile girl with so much energy tell me what to do.  I didn’t care about them, though.

I laughed out loud, my cheeks red and my smile radiant.  A guy – a friend of my best friend’s boyfriend – came up behind me and spun me around.  He led me around the tiny dance floor, and my best friend waved us on, cuddling up to her boyfriend as the song changed its pace.

I still paid no mind to the men at the bar.  Who cared about them?  Certainly not me.

I was dancing; and this time, it wasn’t a two-step.

***

                “And then, oh my goodness, Ali, he lets out this scream of just… TERROR!”  His mom dissipated into a fit of giggles.  She couldn’t finish her thought; which was just as well, because my laughs were already drowning out whatever she’d planned on saying next.

                His cheeks were red.  His palms were clammy.  He was so embarrassed by the story; and yet, he didn’t stop his mom from telling it.  I peeked down once more at the picture of him – glasses, freckles, and the cheesiest grin I’d ever seen on a small child – and slipped an arm around his waist, curling into him.  He kissed my head, hugging me close to him.

                His mom gave me a knowing smile then, as she picked up the photo album and hugged it close to her chest.  She kissed my forehead and gave her son a peck on the cheek.

                “You were the cutest little tee-ball player, son,” she said to him.  “Don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.”

                She dimmed the light in the kitchen as she walked away, up the stairs to her room.  He spun me around, placing a hand on my waist as we stood in the kitchen.

                “You’re not going to make me dance,” I said.  “I don’t dance.”

                “It’s a two-step,” he replied, smiling brightly at me.  “I’ll lead.”

                We hadn’t even made our way around the kitchen once before we realized we couldn’t see.  I let out a small giggle as he searched for a light before turning us around toward his refrigerator.  He opened the refrigerator door, shedding light on our makeshift dance floor in the kitchen.

                Two turns on the floor later, and he was closing the door and carrying me down the stairs to his bedroom.  I smiled against his mouth as we kissed, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world, in the arms of the most handsome, loving, caring man I’d ever met.

                “I love you, Alison.”

***

We made our way back to our table and sat down.  My best friend curled up to her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s best friend sitting next to me with an arm around my shoulder.  I leaned over to whisper something in his ear, and that was when I noticed them.

I’d met his friends on only a few occasions, and they were nice to me each time.  Tonight, however, they were eyeing me with both curiosity and anger.  I’d never seen a group of men gawk like they were.

And I knew… I knew he wasn’t far behind.  I had to get out of there.

“I have to go,” I said to the group as I stood.  I pulled my jacket on quickly, nearly missing the arms because I was so shaky.

“Ali?”

I glanced over to the bar, telling my best friend all she needed to know.  “I have to go.”

She nodded in understanding.  She knew those men.  And she knew where my train of thought had gone.

“I’ll see you around?”

I stared at the beautiful boy in front of me, and willed myself to not cry right there in the middle of the restaurant.

***

                “See you around, Alison.”

                “Wait… please…”

                “It’s over.”

                I shrunk to the floor, holding the phone to my ear; hoping he’d say it was all a joke, that he loved me and he knew we were meant to be together and he was sorry for being so silly and—

                “I’m just being honest.  We aren’t right for each other.  The sooner we accept it, the better.”

                I nodded, knowing he couldn’t see me.  I couldn’t speak, though, and I was not about to try.  I was not about to let him know how he’d crushed me.

                “See you around, Alison.”

***

“Bye,” I called out, ducking my head to avoid the glares of his friends.

They didn’t know the whole story; though I doubt they would care either way if they did.  They didn’t know how he’d crushed me, turned me into a zombie – how I’d spent days upon days in bed because I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong.

They didn’t see the tears I still shed over this man nearly three months after he’d left me high and dry and without explanation.  They never would, though; because I would never let them.

I ducked under the arm holding the door open, pushing my way beside the body blocking the door.  Oh, my scarf…

I walked quickly, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the person to whom that scarf belonged would be coming after me.  I couldn’t allow him to find me again.  I couldn’t allow him to hurt me again.  I’d made so much progress in the three months since we’d separated, and now—

“Alison!”

I walked even faster, pretending I hadn’t heard him.  He was running after me now; and I picked up my pace to make sure he couldn’t catch up to me.

A million scenes flashed through my mind as I power-walked back to my apartment.

                Plaid shirts tangled together under the sheets of his childhood bed…

                Forehead kisses as we waited outside in the cold for hot chocolate…

                Singing our favorite songs as we made our way to visit his family and mine…

I ducked behind a pillar, concealing myself.  He was still coming.  I could hear his feet as they hit the pavement.  He’d picked up his pace because he thought he’d lost me.  He had no idea he was a mere ten feet away from me.  I was going to keep quiet, though; because I did not want him to find out.

“Ali?”

I bit my lip, stifling a cry.  His voice was so different, and yet it hadn’t changed at all.  I had no idea how that was even possible.  Perhaps, I thought sadly, you know who he really is now, and that is why he’s so different.

I folded my arm across my chest, remaining quiet as possible.  He stayed for only a handful of seconds – that felt like hours – before giving up his search for me and walking away.  I stayed hidden by the wall, waiting until I knew it was okay to come out.

My apartment was just around the corner.

I pulled my keys out as I rounded the corner and took a deep breath.  This night had been too much for me – though it was no one’s fault but his… and mine.

I pulled my tank top over my head as I entered my bedroom.  I just wanted to sleep.  And maybe tomorrow, I’d be better.  But maybe I’d be worse.

He’d been the love of my life.  That was something I couldn’t refute.  It was something I would never try to refute.  But I also wouldn’t refute that sometimes the loves of our lives hurt us.  They hurt us so badly that we can’t seem to rebound from it.  Sometimes we’re stuck.  And right now… I could say with certainty I was stuck.

I didn’t know if I’d be stuck here forever.  I didn’t know if I’d be pining over him for the rest of my life.  But I did know one thing:  tomorrow was a brand new day.

I also knew where my scarf was, too, incidentally.  I remembered leaving it at his sister’s house, hung up on one of the pegs behind the door.  I had no doubt he kept it for the sole purpose of remembering me.  I had no doubt it gave him comfort on nights like tonight.  I knew his game.  I knew his story.  I remembered every second of the eight months we spent together.  I remembered it all too well.

Simone and Ian

“More.”

You turn to look at your bedmate.  He’s staring at you like you hold all the answers to the universe.  You realize that in his mind – in his universe – you do.

You’ve spent the better part of the evening in each other’s arms.  He is your husband, and as enjoyable as your honeymoon had been, it wasn’t nearly long enough.  You rushed back for meetings and classes, engagement parties and papers to write.

Lying here with him, you wish for the briefest of moments that you’d waited, that you’d allowed yourself time on the beach in his arms, splashing around like teenagers.  You are not teenagers – he is definitely not a teenager, his 38th birthday having passed months ago – but with him you feel giddy again, on fire.  He’s brought life back to you, a feat you never thought possible.

“I was… I was trying to figure out what you meant when you said it tonight.”

Your speech at your step-sister’s engagement party.  You said the words without even thinking, admitting to the love of your life that he would always be the love of your life.  You will always love him more, without reason.  You will always want him in ways you do not want your husband.

And, it seems, your husband understands this.

“Do you love me, Simone?”

“Always.”

The answer leaves your lips before you even have a chance to think.  You will always love him for what he has done for you – digging you out of the hole you were in, bringing you back to life.  You will forever owe him a debt of gratitude for putting you back together.

So your answer is honest, though not as completely honest as you could have been.  A half-truth is better than a full lie, you reason.

“I just can’t shake the feeling that you’re going to go back to him as soon as things change,” he tells you.  He says the words even as you are snuggling closer to him, nestling into his embrace.  “Like you’re waiting for him to get his act together, and then you’ll be—“

“No.”  You place your fingers over his lips.  You can’t let him say that word.  Gone.  Like you’d leave him in an instant.

It’s not true, you tell yourself.  It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not

You are distracted – momentarily, of course, because Jacob Wessner will never leave your mind for more than a few moments – by your husband’s arms enveloping you.  You will stay.  You will stay.

You will stay, you will stay, you will stay.

He holds you close and peppers kisses on your face, tells you that you are the one thing he managed to get right, that you are the only thing that makes sense.

And you tell him that is what he is for you.  “My solace,” you say to him.  “You saved me, Ian.  God, I can’t imagine where I’d be without you.  I promise, I won’t leave.”

Though even as you say the words, you know they are not true.  Jacob is getting his life back together, getting ready for you.  He is straightening up and you can’t hold him off for long.

But you ignore those thoughts and lose yourself in your husband.  You kiss him and ask him to hold you and he kindly obliges.  He holds you close to him and you listen to the beating of his heart.

This is where you belong.  You belong with this man who has promised to give you the moon and the stars.  You will stay with this man because you love him, because you love who you are with him.  He has brought you out of the eight-year nightmare that was your relationship with Jacob.

And those thoughts bring dreams of a future – something you’d never imagined possible.  This is what love can do, you realize.  It makes everything possible.  You don’t deserve this man’s love, but he gives it freely.

And that, you realize, is enough to decide that you will stick with him.  You will be with him.  You will continue love him as you promised to do; you will always be in his debt, and he will never call you out for the debt because he’s not that kind of man.

“Love you, Simone.”

“You, too, Ian.”

And with that, you drift to sleep.