Asking for it, p.26
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       Asking for It, p.26

         Part #1 of Asking for It series by Lilah Pace
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  “And his slippers. ” We forgot to pack those this morning. Then another idea occurs to me. “We ought to move some of his stuff downstairs and fix up the guest room for him. ”

  The guest room is a small, closetless space on the first floor separated from the living room by some old sliding doors. It’s not the most luxurious place on earth, but it’s comfortable enough.

  Chloe stares at me. “Why would Daddy move into the guest room?”

  “He can’t climb those stairs every day right after heart surgery, Chloe. ”

  “Who said anything about every day? We’ll get him upstairs and take care of him from then on. ”

  “It might be weeks. Or months. ”

  “Then we’ll hire someone to stay with him. ”

  My mother can’t afford that. Anthony and Chloe can, though. Maybe I should be thankful for their generosity, but—“You’re not thinking this through. Dad would hate being stuck up there for forever. He’d much rather be able to eat in the dining room, or go out on the porch swing when Libby’s playing in the yard—”

  “You come home twice a year, if that. ” Chloe snaps the turn signal, refusing to turn toward me. “It takes an emergency to get you here. Then, when you decide to grace us with the honor of your presence, you think you know what’s best for everyone. ”

  Count to ten, I tell myself. Deep breaths. “It’s like you said this morning. We’re all upset and tired, so we’re all picking at little things. ”

  Chloe doesn’t take the graceful way out. “You could be more a part of this family than you are, if you really wanted to be. Obviously, you don’t. It’s fun for you to play with Libby every once in a while, but otherwise you don’t care whether you see us at all. ”

  That’s not true. But it’s close enough to the truth to sting.

  She keeps talking as she steers the Lexus onto St. Charles Avenue. “I don’t know why we bother asking you. All you do is see the worst in things. You’re always looking at the negative. Like now, when you assume Daddy’s going to be an invalid for the rest of his life. ”

  “That is not what I said. ” Looking at the negative? For Chloe, that means I acknowledge reality. “You know what? Let’s ask Dad what he wants once it’s time for him to come home. Then we can do whatever he’d like best. ”

  Chloe’s shrug means she’ll consider it. By now, however, she’s too invested in our argument to let it drop so easily. “You’re not going to graduate school on the dark side of the moon. You’re in Austin. Why don’t you ever come home, if you care about us so much?”

  I cross my arms in front of my chest. The edge of the seat belt rubs uncomfortably against a raw spot on my wrist. “I’m busy. The coursework is demanding. ”

  Page 101

  Which is true, and yet not true. I cleared a few days to visit Jonah in Scotland. If I wanted to get back to New Orleans more often, I could.

  Yes, I’m the most emotionally honest member of my family, but that’s not saying much.

  Chloe actually laughs at me. “Is your ‘coursework’ the reason you didn’t come see us the last time you were in New Orleans?”

  “Chloe—”

  “No, tell me. I want to know. You used to like me. I remember how we used to play, and how I put your hair in curlers for you—” Her voice has become hoarse, and I realize she’s on the verge of tears. “When did you start hating me?”

  “I don’t hate you. You’re my sister, Chloe. I love you. ”

  “Then why don’t you ever come home?”

  Something inside me snaps. “You know why!”

  For a few moments we drive along in silence; the only sound is Rihanna on the radio. Then Chloe shakes her head. “I can’t believe you’re still hung up on Anthony after all these years. ”

  I swear to God, right now I could put my fist through the windshield. “Never, ever have I been ‘hung up’ on Anthony. ”

  “Then why did you make up all those vicious stories about him?”

  “They weren’t stories. ”

  This is as close as Chloe and I have come to discussing what Anthony did since the week before her wedding, when I made the mistake of bringing it up. I thought I might be able to talk her out of making the worst mistake of her life. No such luck. Even before I’d gotten the whole story out of my mouth, she became even more convinced that I was a liar, one who had it out for her beloved Anthony.

  Maybe I should try again, this moment. Simply start with Anthony and me on the sofa, Titanic on the TV, the beer can in his hand. Tell her every detail, from the way he yanked down my leggings to the way he called me a “good girl” for simply lying there and crying. Would she recognize any of that? Or does Anthony save his cruelty for women who aren’t his wife?

  Down deep, though, I know it will do no good. Chloe believes Anthony. She doesn’t believe me. Second verse, same as the first.

  “You’re right,” Chloe finally says as she parks on the street in front of our house; she’s so ready to get me out of her car she doesn’t even bother with the driveway. “We’re all upset and tired today. Let’s forget about this. ”

  Everyone else in my family chooses to forget. I’m the one cursed to remember.

  The weight settles over me. I feel ungrateful, childish, for caring about anything else after I just found out Dad’s going to make it—but even that happiness doesn’t shield me from the hard truths: My family remains as toxic as it ever was. Anthony will be waiting for me back at the house with a grin on his face, and for Libby’s sake, I will have to be polite to my rapist, again. My exhaustion and my sorrow bear down on me at the same time, and suddenly I feel too heavy and sad to even get out of the car.

  But there’s Libby, waving both arms as she runs around in the yard. “Aunt Vivi! Come and swing with me!”

  So I get out. When I open the car door, it bumps the white carriage stone. Sure enough, there’s a small scuff on the golden surface of Chloe’s luxury car. She breathes out sharply through her nose but says nothing. Instead she jams her hands into the pockets of her quilted vest and heads straight up the walk, her golden hair swinging behind her as she goes. Even at a difficult time like this, her jeans are neatly pressed, her boots match her Prada bag, and her nails are perfect. Chloe doesn’t let anything touch her. Her shell is her shield.

  As much as I want to despise her for that, I envy it, too. I could use a shield around now.

  I follow her up the path to my parents’ front door. Anthony leans against one of the tall columns in front, watching. Probably Chloe thinks he’s looking at their daughter, but he’s looking at me. His smile always makes me remember the things he said that night.

  You don’t want them to catch us, do you?

  Good girl.

  My steps falter. Struggling for composure, I turn toward Libby instead. She’s running in circles around the oak tree in the front yard, and I try to summon the energy to chase her. Before I can, though, she stops and points. “Who’s that?”

  I lift my head to see a taxicab pulling off, and Jonah standing on the sidewalk, his dark suitcase by his feet.

  It’s not as if I forgot he was coming. But until this moment, I didn’t realize how badly I wanted him to be here. How much I needed him. At this moment, I feel safe—from Anthony, from my screwed-up family, even from the ghosts in my own mind. It’s as if I had been drowning until this moment, when I finally broke the surface and breathed in fresh air.

  Page 102

  Jonah came here for me.

  I take one step toward him, another, and then I’m running. Jonah steps through the gate in time to catch me in his arms. I don’t speak. I don’t cry. I just let him hold me. It’s enough.

  Thirty

  Jonah whispers in my ear, “Your dad?”

  My breath catches in my throat, but I manage to answer. “He made it through. He’ll be okay. ”

  “Good. ” Jonah brushes my hair back, kisses my forehead. “That
s good. ”

  I nod as I snuggle further into his embrace. Even the scent of his skin comforts me. Jonah’s arms are my fortress. His fingers brush against my cheek, and I turn my head to kiss them lightly.

  Libby’s voice calls out again, even louder. “Aunt Vivi, who is that? Do you know him?”

  That makes me laugh, and I even see Jonah smile. “Of course I know him, sweetie. This is my friend Jonah. ”

  “Hi,” Jonah says. Apparently he reserves his hellos for little children. But I can’t resent it, not when I hear how gently he speaks to her. “I came to visit Vivienne. That’s all right, isn’t it?”

  Obviously Libby likes being asked her opinion on this subject. Her chubby little face becomes grave. “It’s all right, but you have to help me color later. ”

  Jonah gets a deer-in-the-headlights look. I whisper, “A little rusty with your Crayolas?”

  “You’re the artist,” he says.

  It’s only a small joke. But it’s such a relief to smile, to let everything else fade into the background for a moment.

  On the porch stand Anthony, hands in his pockets, and Chloe, one arm slung possessively around her husband’s shoulders. Neither of them seems ready to welcome Jonah with open arms—or to welcome him at all. I glance up at Jonah. “Ready to run the gauntlet?”

  He picks up his suitcase and takes my hand. “I’ve walked through a lava field,” he says. “I think I can handle this. ”

  •   •   •

  “Well,” Chloe says as I show Jonah inside. “I hardly expected you to bring a date for the occasion, Vivienne. ”

  “I’m here for moral support. ” Jonah holds out his hand. “Jonah Marks. ”

  Sometimes “Southern hospitality” is just another term for hypocrisy. But those good manners are carved into Chloe so deeply that she can’t resist them. With a small, pursed smile, she says, “Chloe Charles Whedon. This is my husband, Anthony, and our daughter, Olivia. ”

  “Call me Libby. ” Already Libby thinks she’s made a conquest. “Are you Aunt Vivi’s boyfriend?”

  “You’d have to ask your aunt about that. ” He looks away from her just long enough to smile at me.

  Anthony steps forward, almost a swagger. “What line are you in, Jonah? In soybeans, myself. ”

  Chloe chimes in, “He’s so modest. Anthony would never tell you his family runs the largest soybean farms in Tennessee and Mississippi. ”

  She always says this like growing soybeans is better than winning a Nobel Prize. Which makes it even more delicious to watch their faces as Jonah says, “I’m in volcanoes. ”

  “Beg pardon?” Anthony says.

  “I’m a professor at UT Austin. I study volcanoes and earthquakes. ”

  Libby pipes up, “You study them in books?”

  “Not only in books. ” Jonah smiles down at her. “I travel around the world to look at geological hot spots. Sometimes I get a plane or helicopter to take me directly overhead. Every once in a while I even have to wear a heat-shield suit, so the lava won’t get me. ”

  “Coooooool. ” Big-eyed, Libby stares up at Jonah like he’s the most fantastic person she’s ever met in her short life. So he’s won over the one family member whose opinion matters.

  As for Anthony—it’s as if he’s deflating. All of a sudden he seems to realize he’s shorter than Jonah, and he sits in the nearest chair, like maybe that way nobody will notice.

  The formalities have been dispensed with. Jonah turns to me, and it’s as if I’m the only person in the room. “When can you visit your father?”

  I glance at the brass-and-marble clock on the nearest mantel. “Two or three hours from now. Mom left for the hospital right after the doctor called, but the rest of us have to wait for him to be moved to his room. ”

  “Okay. ” Jonah slides his arm around me. “We’ll wait. ”

  Chloe surrenders with good grace. “Would you like some iced tea, Jonah?”

  Page 103

  “I’m fine. What about you, Vivienne?”

  “I’m good,” I say, thinking, now that Jonah’s here.

  At first we all hang out together downstairs. Jonah and I sit on the long velvet sofa, me curled along his side as if we’d been together forever—as if this weren’t the actual day we’d realized how much we might mean to each other.

  Jonah must be as rocked by this revelation as I am, but at the moment, his attention is divided. Libby has settled her lap desk on his lap, to make it easier for them to color side by side.

  “You must really like volcanoes,” Libby chirps, as Jonah uses the goldenrod crayon to touch up some lava flow.

  “I do,” he says, then adds more quietly, “and they’re the only thing I know how to draw. ”

  That makes me smile, but still, I can’t stop hearing the clicking of Chloe’s boots on the hardwood floor as she paces back and forth. Anthony buries himself in his cell phone, playing some game he doesn’t go to the trouble to mute. The hands on the brass-and-marble clock on the mantel move so slowly I could believe they’re painted on. Jonah’s presence makes me feel less afraid, less alone—but nothing can make me feel comfortable in Anthony’s presence, not even him. So when Libby goes down for her nap, I plead exhaustion and take Jonah upstairs with me.

  “Do you need to sleep?” he murmurs as we reach the second floor. “You have to be ready to drop. ”

  “I am, but I couldn’t fall asleep now. Just come out on the gallery with me. ”

  Jonah frowns. “The gallery?”

  “Like a balcony, except the supports go all the way down to the ground. ” New Orleans Architecture 101. “Come on. ”

  Our gallery is screened in, which makes it a pleasant place to spend long summer nights. By November, the breezes are cooler, but Jonah and I are dressed warmly enough. I sink down onto one of the long bamboo “outdoor chaises,” and Jonah sits next to me.

  Although I expect no more than the comfort of Jonah’s presence, after a moment, he speaks. “We never talked about our families. I thought I was . . . protecting myself. I never asked if you had your own stories to tell. ”

  “You picked up on that already, huh?”

  “Kind of hard to miss. ”

  Jonah doesn’t know enough, and yet he knows too much. So I shake my head. “This isn’t the time to get into it. I just have to get through this, okay?”

  “Okay,” he murmurs, pulling me down into his embrace. We lie there quietly for a while before he says, “Do you feel all right? After last night. ”

  The memory makes me blush. “Oh. Yeah. ” Some of the most intense sex of my life was less than twenty-four hours ago, and yet it feels like a fever dream. “Only a little sore. And I scraped my wrist when I fell in the woods. ”

  When I point out the red place on my wrist, Jonah rubs just below it with his thumb. No idea why that diminishes the pain, but it does.

  I murmur, “I feel kind of guilty. You came all the way down here, and we already know my father made it through surgery. I didn’t mean to waste your time. ”

  “It’s not a waste of time. ” Jonah brushes my hair back from my face. A breeze outside rustles the oak leaves, but I don’t feel the chill. “I meant what I said on the phone. ”

  “About things being different for us?”

  He nods, and I feel a wave of almost inexpressible tenderness for this strong man hiding so much vulnerability, so much pain. Maybe that’s what he sees when he looks at me.

  It’s so hard to believe that someone might want me—all of me—fucked-up sexual desire, tangled family history, book-hoarding tendencies, everything. I never looked for that. I never even dared to dream about it.

  Now, with Jonah, I can finally start to ask myself what it would mean to be totally honest with another person.

  Right now, I know only one thing for sure: Whatever dark secrets Jonah has to tell, whatever his past has held, I can hear it. I won’t flinch, and I won
t turn back.

  “It’s going to take a while to get there,” I say softly. “You know that. ”

  “I know. ” Jonah’s lips brush my hair. “We’ll get there. ”

  Finally I can begin to believe that might be true.

  When we go back downstairs, Chloe is suddenly occupied with the question of where to put Jonah—as in, tonight. “We haven’t that many guest rooms, and Anthony and I won’t want to drive Olivia all the way back to Metairie—”

  I give her a look. My room has a double bed, after all. It might be a tight fit for me and Jonah, but if we made do on a backstage table, I bet we can manage.

  Page 104

  Undeterred, Chloe continues, “No doubt Vivienne will ask our mother if you can stay here, but I’m not at all sure what she’ll say. Momma’s old-fashioned, you see. Even after Anthony and I got engaged, he still had to sleep in the guest room, or on the sofa when Grandma visited. Didn’t you, hon?”

  I remember Anthony on the sofa, and I flinch. Jonah catches the movement, perhaps from the corner of his eye, but he doesn’t react. Instead he calmly answers, “I made a reservation at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. Only four or five blocks away. ”

  Normally I get a little weary of the touristy trappings of the Garden District, like the endless walking tours of sloppily dressed gawkers who shamble along the sidewalks. At this moment, however, I’m profoundly grateful. I know the place he means; it’s so close, I could stay there with him and not even Momma could take it as an insult.

  That means I won’t have to spend the night under the same roof as Anthony.

  When we finally head to the hospital to see Dad, Jonah goes to check in at the B&B. “I wouldn’t want to intrude,” he says, which is gracious and polite and makes even Chloe smile in approval. Even now, I’d rather have him with me—but this much, I can manage.

  The hospital is both better and worse than I thought it would be.

  Better, in that Dad seems more or less like himself, just tired. I’d braced myself for the sight of my father semiconscious, delirious, frail, and waxen. He does look a little pale, but otherwise, switch out the hospital gown for a polo shirt and khakis and he could as easily be lying back in his recliner at home. “They won’t let me eat anything yet,” he grumbles. “Not a bite!”

  “You know they have to watch that stuff right after anesthesia, Dad. ” I pat his arm. “But I bet they’re going to bring you something soon. ”

 
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