Asking for it, p.30
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       Asking for It, p.30
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         Part #1 of Asking for It series by Lilah Pace
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  Mom’s lessons die hard.

  “I’m sorry I was so abrupt in the car,” Jonah says. “It was a difficult time for you, in many ways. I should’ve held it together for your sake. ”

  “You told me what you were honestly feeling. You don’t have to apologize for that. ”

  We walk on together, side by side. Our footsteps crunch on fallen leaves and drought-dry grass. In Austin we don’t get autumns of crimson leaves or winters of brilliant white snow. The year ebbs away into colorless cold.

  Jonah finally asks, “Do you want to tell me what happened with Anthony?”

  Once I thought I could never say this to anyone, least of all him. Yet now Jonah’s the only person I can imagine telling. “I was fourteen. He and Chloe were in college, dating. One night when he was visiting, Chloe went to bed early, and my parents did too. Anthony raped me on the couch. ”

  After a long moment, Jonah says, “He came on you. Didn’t he?”

  God, graphic. But true, and nothing less than the whole truth will do anymore. “Yes, he did. I’ve hated that ever since. ”

  “You said you told Chloe and she didn’t believe you?”

  I shake my head. “I told my mother and she didn’t believe me. Anthony told Chloe I tried to flirt with him, and she got angry with me for trying to steal her boyfriend. The week before her wedding, I made one last attempt at getting her to see who and what Anthony really is, and I tried to explain the whole story to her, but she didn’t want to hear it. Now my rapist is in the family, and he’s half of Libby, whom I love so much. That means he’s part of my life forever. ”

  Jonah’s gaze has turned inward, as if he’s studying my story from every possible angle. “I thought most rape victims couldn’t stand seeing even allusions to rape. Much less . . . what we did. ”

  “You’re right. Most rape victims have a very different reaction. But this is what it did to me. Who I am now. ”

  He nods, still deep in thought. “I should’ve realized,” he says quietly. “When you never wanted to fuck any other way—some of your limits—I should’ve known. ”

  “You have your limits, just like me,” I say. It’s mostly me parroting what Doreen and I talked about.

  But then I find myself remembering that first night in the wine bar, when Jonah and I negotiated the terms of our arrangement. He asked me to defend him, not to injure him too badly, and—not to call him Daddy.

  My stomach drops; nausea sweeps through me. My voice sounds strangled as I ask, “Jonah, did it happen to you too?”

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  “Was I raped? No. ” But Jonah stands still, weighing his next words. “It was—so much more fucked up than that. ”

  What in the world could be more fucked up than that? I can’t imagine.

  But I don’t have to imagine. I’m here, and I can listen. “Will you tell me?”

  He doesn’t answer for a long time, long enough that I begin to think he’ll say no. Instead, he turns away from me, stares at the brook, and begins to speak.

  “I was four years old when my father died. Not quite six when my mother married Carter Hale. Elise was five then, and both Rebecca and Maddox were two. They took formal portraits of the new family—you know, little suits for me and Mad, velvet dresses for the girls, Mom and Carter smiling. The money, the children, the airline, the real estate. They wanted the whole world to know they had it all. ” He shakes his head. “No one ever guessed what was really happening behind the doors of Redgrave House. ”

  “Which was what?”

  Jonah takes a deep breath. “The first time—the first time, it was late at night, and I heard my mother crying. I’d heard that before, after my father died. Sometimes it helped her if I came to her, gave her a hug, something like that. So I went to her bedroom. And Carter was . . . ”

  “They were having sex?” I say. That would freak out almost any kid, but surely even the archetypal Freudian event wouldn’t leave Jonah so deeply scarred.

  He says, “Carter was raping my mother. ”

  “Oh, my God. ” I can’t imagine seeing that, ever, much less as a small child.

  “I didn’t understand. ” Jonah’s voice breaks. “I had some idea of what they were doing, but my mother was crying. Bleeding. And then Carter saw me, and he was so angry. I thought he would beat me, but he did worse than that. ”

  “What?”

  “He made me watch. ”

  Bile churns in my gut, and I think I might actually vomit. Who the hell does that to a child? Whose mind works that way? A monster. Only a monster. All these years I thought Anthony Whedon was the worst thing that could ever happen to me, but Carter Hale is another level of evil altogether.

  “Carter took his time. I think I was in there an hour before he was done with her. He told me that—that this was what it meant to be a man. That this was what women wanted. What they deserved. ”

  All this time, I thought I was working out my darkest demons while Jonah just played our games for fun. Never did I dream what secret burden he might be carrying.

  But even if I’d spent hours psychoanalyzing him, guessing what might underlie his own desires, I would never have guessed this.

  “I didn’t believe him,” Jonah says. “I knew it couldn’t be right, the way he’d hurt my mother. But the next day, when I was alone with her, I asked her if we would run away. Mom said—she said it was just that way between men and women sometimes. She pretended everything was all right. I told myself that must be true. ”

  By now I remember how this story began. “Jonah, you said—you said, ‘The first time. ’”

  Jonah’s smile is sharper than any blade I’ve ever seen, maybe as sharp as the blade Jonah wishes he could hold to his stepfather’s throat. “Maybe it turned Carter on. He likes humiliating my mother, and what could be more humiliating than bringing her child in the room to watch? So he started coming into my bedroom when I was trying to sleep. He’d carry me into their room and wouldn’t let me leave. He made me say out loud all the things ‘Daddy’ was doing to her. ”

  I picture a small boy in his PJs, maybe with rocket ships printed on the cotton, having to speak those words. It’s as if the pain from that moment leaps through the distance and the years to pierce my own heart. “Oh, God, Jonah, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. ”

  He doesn’t seem to hear me. Now that this terrible story has begun, he can’t stop until he’s gotten it all out. “At first Carter made me watch from the corner. After a while, he started making me sit on the foot of the bed. And a couple of times—he—Vivienne, Carter made me ride on his back. ”

  Jesus Christ. I’ve gone from feeling nauseated to feeling faint. If it’s this terrible for me to hear this, what must it have been like for Jonah to grow up this way?

  “Eventually he made Elise watch too,” Jonah says. “We were able to keep him from ever starting in on Rebecca and Maddox, though. We protected them. Sometimes I think that’s the only truly good thing I’ve ever done, protecting them. So they get to be the normal ones. ” He runs one hand through his hair. “If you think I’m screwed up, you should meet Elise. ”

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  I imagine little Jonah and Elise suffering to keep the two babies safe, and their bravery tears through my heart. “When did he stop?”

  “When did Carter stop raping my mother? Never, as far as I know. But when Elise and I got close to puberty, he stopped wanting us in the room while he did it. Maybe he had a touch of pedophilia mixed in with all his other psychoses. Or he thought we might finally be big enough to challenge him. At the time, I didn’t analyze the reasons why. I was just glad it was over. ”

  “And your mother never left him?” Of course not. They’re living on different floors of Redgrave House. I remember the news stories now—Jonah’s mother’s insanity, her violence.

  No wonder the children haven’t turned on her. They know she’s mad because Carter Hale drove her mad.

 
I used to ask her why she didn’t go,” Jonah says. “When I was little. I said she shouldn’t let Carter hurt her. But she told me—over and over, she told me, that’s how things are between men and women. She pretended nothing was wrong. And so in my head, that kind of violence, that kind of humiliation—to me, that was what sex was. ”

  He’s been reliving his worst memories. Letting his demons out to play. Each of us assumed the other was simply indulging a kinky fetish, when in fact we were shepherding each other through our nightmares.

  “Obviously I learned the difference between sex and rape. ” Jonah turns back to me. When our eyes meet, it feels like we’re looking at each other for the first time. “I knew I would never, ever do to anyone what Carter did to my mother. That I would defend any woman in that kind of danger, to make up for the times I wanted to defend my mother and didn’t. Yet deep inside, on a level I couldn’t consciously reach—I wanted something I could never allow myself to have. ”

  “Until we found each other,” I say.

  “No. Knowing what happened to you . . . it changes everything. ”

  “Why?” I want to shake him. “You haven’t hurt me, Jonah. You’ve helped me. For some reason, what we do helps me work through this. I’ve felt so ashamed of myself for so long. So dirty. With you, I could let some of that shame go. ” Why do I feel so much freer when I’ve surrendered to Jonah in that way? I don’t know, and yet I do.

  Our games are the only escape from that shame I’ve ever had.

  Jonah looks torn between anger and tears. “I’m glad it meant something to you. Something good. But the things I do to you—I can’t do that, knowing how you’ve suffered. Knowing that when we’re together, you’re reliving an actual rape—I just can’t. ”

  I cannot handle any of this for-your-own-good bullshit right now. “You’re leaving me to protect me?”

  “No. I’m protecting myself. ”

  He gets to have limits, Doreen’s voice reminds me. Maybe I should restrain myself for Jonah’s sake, too. We’re dealing with horrible experiences, probably not in a very healthy way. Yet I still feel like I could scream, or shout, like I would do anything to keep him from walking away again.

  “What we have goes beyond sex,” I say. “At least, it does for me. ”

  Jonah won’t look at me. “For me too. ”

  “So shouldn’t we at least try to love each other?” I take one step toward him. “We found each other—two people broken in the exact same way. That’s pretty rare. ”

  “And you think our broken edges would fit together, make us whole?” He looks so sad. So lost. “It doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. ”

  Is Jonah right? Maybe he is. Despite everything, I can’t make myself believe that.

  But I also can’t make Jonah stay.

  “Is this good-bye?” I ask.

  Jonah opens his mouth to say yes—I can sense the word on his lips—but instead he says, “I don’t know. ”

  Hope seizes me. He wants things to be different. He doesn’t seem to know how they could be, and I don’t either, but if we both want that, maybe there’s still a chance.

  “You know where to find me,” I say. “Even if it’s not, you know, about us. If you just want to talk. ”

  He gives me a look. I don’t think Jonah makes a habit of sharing his troubles with anyone. However, after a moment he says, “You can talk to me too. ”

  Jonah has now become the only person besides my therapist who fully understands what’s going on with me. I’ve needed someone like that in my life. But Jonah and I will never have the kind of transition to friendship that Geordie and I have—or had, before I confronted Geordie last night.

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  What we have cuts too deep. Matters too much. Jonah and I will find our way back to each other, or we’ll drift apart forever. We won’t wind up with anything in between.

  In either case, our future won’t be decided today. It will take a long time for us to weigh the truths we’ve learned, and told.

  “I should leave,” Jonah says.

  Don’t walk away. Don’t go. But this intensity is too much to bear for both of us. We have to leave the wreckage of our pasts and go back to the lives we’ve built. “Me too. I’m supposed to go see Shay and the baby. ”

  “Tell them congratulations. ”

  Does he mean it, or is it just something to say, words to fill the silence? Both, probably. “Okay. I will. ”

  We walk together through the park, the only sounds our feet crunching on dry grass, the distant rumble of traffic, and the water flowing next to us. Neither of us is walking very quickly. Jonah wants to stretch this moment out as much as I do, I realize. The difference is, he’s willing for this moment to be our last.

  I’m not. But how do I change that, if I even can?

  Only when we reach the edge of the park does Jonah speak again. “I’ll never forget you. ”

  Goddammit, now I’m going to cry. “I won’t forget you either. Like I ever could. ”

  He smiles unevenly at me. “I’ll think of you every time I see your picture on the wall, of the man capturing the dove. ”

  “He’s not capturing the dove. ”

  “But his hands are cupped around it—”

  “He’s protecting the dove. Keeping it safe. In a minute, he’s going to open up his hands to let it fly. ”

  Jonah looks at me for a long moment, his gray eyes searching mine. Then he nods and walks away. Yet again, no good-bye.

  This time I’m glad he didn’t say it. Because it’s not good-bye for us. When I told him about the dove flying free, I saw something in Jonah I’ve never seen before.

  I saw hope.

  And that’s how I know that somehow, someday, Jonah will find his way back to me.

 
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