Coming Home

“What in the world… when did you get a dog?”

Piper kneels down in front of Anakin, my labradoodle, and scratches the back of his neck. He leans in to her, ducking his head in appreciation. This is his weakness: strangers who offer him affection and treat him like the little prince he is.

“Anakin,” I tell her, and she shoots me a curious look. “Because he’s so light and dark.”

My explanation sends my friend into a fit of giggles, though it’s absolutely true. My dog is light in color and dark in behavior – ruining my good towels one moment and fetching my mail the next. He’s my companion, though, and for that I am eternally grateful. He loves me without reason…

A welcome change from the last man I loved.

“I can’t believe you really did it,” Piper tells me. “You actually walked away from him. I mean, changed your number and everything.” She pauses. “Thanks for that, by the way. I tried to call and was notified by an automated response that your number was disconnected.”

I shrug. “I had to make a clean break, Pipe. Goodness knows I wasn’t going to be able to make it out any other way.”

She nods, settling on the floor with Anakin’s head on her lap. “I think he’s still scheming to get you back.”

“He can try,” I tell her, taking a seat across from her on the floor. “But it’s not going to happen.”

“It’s really over?” She asks me.

I nod, folding my knees against my chest. “It’s really over.”

Anakin sighs and rolls over on his side, his head still perched on Piper’s lap. I look out my window to the small village I call home.

Italy has been everything I never knew I needed. Living in a quiet town, away from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities like Rome, allowing myself time to heal from all the things Jake and I went through — separately and together. I needed a new start, and this place fit the bill. No one knows me here but the lady at the market and the boy she sends to delivers my groceries. My anonymity is a saving grace from a world that still plasters my pictures on the front of magazines because of my connections.

Connections like the girl sitting in front of me who’s been my best friend since before we understood the significance of the term.

“Does he know you’re here?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “No. No one but Hadley knows I’m here.”

“You didn’t tell Charli?” I ask.

She looks to me with an expression that tells me I already know the answer to that question. “And have her husband try to extort the information from her? I know better.”

I nod, processing the information. “Good. That’s good.”

“Is it so bad that he just wants to make sure you’re okay?” She asks me after what seems like hours of silence.

Is it? I ask myself that question at least three times a day. He’s tried to contact me to no avail. My number has changed, and the only four people with my location have been sworn to secrecy.

“Jake has never been about the just,” I say. Piper looks at me in curiosity, but I can only shake my head. “He doesn’t want to just make sure I’m okay. He doesn’t want to just make sure I’m settling in.” I take a deep breath, willing myself not to cry over this – over him – for the millionth time. “He wants to know where I am so he can make another grand gesture, fly halfway across the world and beg me to come back to him, ask me to marry him to show how serious he is. And then I go back to him, and he’ll cheat on me again, and I’m left wondering what I did wrong.”

Piper takes a moment to process this information, patting Anakin’s head as he eyes me with bored interest. He’s heard me say these exact words before – to Charli and her husband, Ben, Jake’s brother, when they’ve asked me for my location just so Jake could know I was fine. If the dog could talk he’d probably be able to recite my soliloquy at this point.

“The problem has never been about me,” I mutter, and Piper looks at me sadly. But I can only shake my head again, shaking the sadness away. “Jake… he wants to make sure I’m okay, but he also wants me back. And once he gets me back, he thinks he can do whatever and I’ll be okay with it because I love him. Which I still do, by the way.”

It’s been seven months since I left and I still feel him in my bones. I’ll probably always love him, will always feel like he’s a part of me, but I have to love me more. I have to decide that my wellbeing is more important than his desires. Too long I put him first, made him the center of my universe. And now… now it’s my turn to be the center of the universe.

“He was never going to stop,” I tell Piper, who continues to listen to me, allowing me this moment to let my emotions out – emotions I’ve left buried since the first time Jake broke my heart. “He was always going to be that guy. He either can’t or won’t change. But I can. I can finally say that I’m done with feeling this way. I can walk away, stop doing this to myself.”

Piper nods, her sad eyes welling with tears as she continues to pet the dog. Anakin stares at me with tired eyes, clearly accustomed to my outbursts. He’s heard this song and dance before, and he’ll hear it again.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize things had gotten bad again,” Piper tells me. “I thought things were fine.”

I shrug. “Jake and I were always good at faking it, putting on a show. For a long time we both believed everything was fine. But I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t. He was always going to hurt me until I stopped letting him.”

“Do you regret leaving Ian?” She asks me.

I shake my head, not even hesitating. “He wasn’t the one for me, either.”

And it’s true. He was perfect, really, but our relationship was always about being safe. I didn’t want safe – not when Jake was always lurking in the shadows. Ian didn’t want safe, either – no matter how much he claimed he did. Our relationship was one of convenience. We both knew the clock was going to run out on it.

The doorbell rings and I buzz up the boy who delivers my groceries. He looks between Piper and me when he arrives before resigning himself to the fact that my life is a mystery, taking his tip with him as he walks out the door. Piper shoots me an amused look but says nothing. We fall into one of our token companionable silences. Neither of us needs to speak. I’ve said everything I need to say and she has asked everything she needs to ask.

The sun is sitting pretty up in the sky, flooding through the window to my living room floor. The top floor is such a me thing to do – no matter how much I loathed living in the penthouse when I was younger, now it brings me peace, tranquility, a tall tower away from the rest of the world. I stare out the window at the little town. I can’t stay here forever, I know that. I’ve thought of leaving, but I’m not on a schedule to get back. I’ll go back when I’m ready. Even my mother believes this is the right step for me, staying here until I’m finally at peace.

And yet that’s a timeline I’m not sure even exists. I think again on my relationship with Jake, and how even now I can feel him so deep in my soul I don’t think I’ll ever get him out. I wasn’t one for soulmates when I was younger, but Jake changed all of that for me. He threw all my perfectly laid plans out the window when he came into my life.

And he did the same thing the day he ruined it all.

I squeeze my eyes shut once, twice, three times and try to calm my breathing, but Piper notices and is by my side in an instant, Anakin trotting along behind her to flank my other shoulder. “God, I loved him,” I whisper through my tears. I focus on the fact that I used past-tense to describe those feelings when, in fact, they are still very real. “I love him still,” I amend, but even that doesn’t calm my anxiety-ridden soul. My heart is tattered, my mind is a minefield, and it’s all because of him.

“Why did he have to do it again, Piper? Why?” I ask, feeling the sobs overtake me. My body shakes as I cry for what seems like the millionth time over this man. This man who doesn’t care, who probably never cared.

My friend has no answers, though. She would have to crawl inside his mind, a feat I was never able to accomplish in the twelve years we spent together. He kept himself hidden away from me, from our relationship, never quite able or willing to let me in.

“I don’t know,” she tells me, her voice as weak and shaky as mine. She rubs my back soothingly, and I lean into her, the way I always did when we were little and she’d comfort me when my parents were fighting and my thoughts were too loud. I take a few deep, calming breaths and try to center myself – a meditation trick I picked up on a weekend getaway with my mom in India. I find my center and focus on it, allowing peaceful thoughts into my mind. I feel peace incrementally, seeping into my bones as I curl up next to my dog and my best friend, both of whom are wrapped around me.

“Maybe I won’t ever know why Jake strayed,” I say to Piper. “Maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe… maybe this was a lesson I had to learn.”

“Maybe,” Piper murmurs against my hair. She releases me, perhaps feeling my calm within her own bones now, too. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do: be calm, not only for myself but for my friends as well. Maybe this calm is supposed to make us all better. I know Piper could use some calm, with her wedding fast approaching and deadlines closing in on her at the label. I felt her stress the moment she walked through my door. She didn’t need a runaway best friend, but she dropped everything to come and find me.

“Maybe also… it’s just a thing,” she offers. “You had to learn eventually that he wouldn’t change, but he also had to learn that he couldn’t continue his behavior. He lost the best thing that ever happened to him – believe me, he knows that – and now he’s learned that you aren’t coming back.”

And she’s right. My heart knows that I won’t come back to him and his toxic love.

But my heart also knows that I do have to go back home. I can’t stay hidden away forever.

“So let me guess…” I begin, smirking at my friend. “You’re here to see if I’ll be back in time for the wedding.”

Piper shoves me playfully, then toys with the ring on her finger. She’s much older now than the first time she was married, to a man who swept her off her feet. She needed him at the time, she says. And now she needs Jeremiah, the man who cautiously swooped in and showed her that love could be calm and good and stay in one place – that love does not mean always being caught up in the moment.

A lesson I learned the hard way.

“You can’t stay away forever,” she tells me. “Might as well come back for the wedding.”

I know she’s right. I know wholeheartedly that staying away means Jake finally managed to break me, that he’s taken the city I love – my city – away from me, and that he’s won. I can’t let that happen for a number of reasons, chief of which is the fact that I’m not broken – at least, not as broken as I used to be.

Not as broken as he thinks I am.

“I’m not giving this place up,” I tell her. “I may need to come back here after the wedding.”

She shrugs. “Maybe we’ll all need to come back here after the wedding. You, me, Hadley, Charli, Harper. Maybe we’ll all need a breather.”

“I’m certain your husband will have an issue with that,” I remind her.

She smirks at me. “He gets it. You all come first in my life. You’re my village.”

I smile at my friend, knowing she’s telling me the same thing: that my home is the city, but my home is also her, and our friends, and my stepsister. My home is not just a place, but a state of mind, with my favorite humans by my side. Jake could show up unexpectedly anywhere in the city, which makes me nervous; but he’ll never have my best girlfriends. Because they have always had my back, even when the city didn’t.

“I’ll have to pack,” I mutter to her, and I feel her calm even more, hear her release a heavy breath in relief. “And Anakin can’t stay here. He’s coming back with us.”

“Of course he’s coming along,” she tells me. “He hasn’t met the rest of the group yet.”

I roll my eyes as I move to stand to my feet. Anakin eyes me cautiously, awaiting my next move. The last time I packed in front of him, he jumped in my suitcase and whined until he realized he was coming along. I anticipate the same reaction from him this time as well.

But he’ll be by my side. So will my friends. So will my city, to an extent – because it is also Jake’s city. He can have his parts, and I’ll have mine.

Like my village – my family, my friends, my dog. He can’t have those. They’re mine.

And I’ve got a lot more to fight for than he does.

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