The Shadow Between
“The search for the greatest possible pleasure must always run the risk of pain: this is the secret of its strength.” –Raoul Vaneigem
Two people sat together at a picnic table in the pavilion of a small neighborhood park. The day was warmer than it had been in a while, though rainy. Ike brought hot food and a split of champagne; Paulette brought pumpkin bread and apple butter from Con’s house. She had walked from the apartment, already dressed for work, a warm turtleneck under her brown shirt and jacket. The park was deserted.
“I don’t have long,” she said nervously. “I’ve gotta go to work soon.”
“I need to get back to the office, too.” Ike shrugged at the look she gave him. “I said I had a doctor’s appointment.”
She looked back at the Tupperware container they were eating out of, toying with the last orange bit of candied yams that he’d left for her. She felt like a fucking twelve-year-old.
He looked into her eyes, as he licked the brown sugar off his fork. It was a simple glance, but something in it defied her to finish. This was only the second time she’d agreed to see him since that night, though he was working such long hours, even on her days off, it was tough to arrange. That was her story, anyway. Last Sunday they’d gone to the Tap Room for lunch and to watch the Eagles-Ravens game before he went in to the office. He’d been so energized: fresh-scrubbed, hair damp, breathless like he’d run there rather than taken the bus. That whole afternoon, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and later, when she dropped him off downtown, they made out in the car in front of his office. He said he missed her. She hit the gym after, and even if it had been one of her better workouts, she felt hollowed out the rest of the day. When she called him that evening, she still couldn’t say it. But she felt it.
Now here they were, together, another stolen moment. Ike looked tired. And no wonder. They may not have seen much of each other, but every night for the last two weeks, without exception, she had called him when she got home from work, and they usually talked in their quiet tones for a couple hours. He couldn’t be getting much sleep.
What could they have to say to each other? Everything, it turned out. Just hearing his voice opened a door in her that had seemed a barren wall. Talking and talking, she didn’t care what: the day at work, her training sessions, his deadlines, dreams and nightmares, dinner, friends, silliness. Fred’s big ideas; Con’s frequent tears. And sex. My God, he liked to talk about sex. They compared notes: who had done what and who hadn’t gotten to do what, and would you? He surprised her; he kept on surprising her. Those straight from a church pew looks of his hid a serious kink. Yes! She had been right about him, right in a way that lifted her off the ground with the possibility of it, and it was nearly physical pleasure itself, an electrical steam that raced up her thighs, to be able to always tell him yes. Yes, I would. This I can give to you with abandon. Yes. Let’s.
But still they hadn’t.
It was her fault. Every night it was the same refrain: “I’d really like to see you again” and every night there was a reason not to, some logistical, and others less so. He was the picture of patience, for now, but it probably wouldn’t last. With separation, she could carry this on with him, the talk and the text, and keep body and soul from flying apart. So far, nothing much had changed, except being happier, if that was the word for what she was, because she was about equal parts pissed off at the world for reasons that weren’t always clear. But she liked her private little legal high. The fact that she couldn’t sleep with him again hadn’t changed, which was terrible since she couldn’t sleep with anyone else either. Whatever was the matter, and she had her guesses, it wasn’t Ike.
Sometimes, she’d get up to find a text message that he’d sent from the office. Twice, she wrote him long emails and sent along pictures from when she was a little girl, a tall, knobby-jointed kid with messy brown hair in her eyes. Or smashed up but smiling after that MMA match she’d won in the spring. He’d been incredulous, impressed, and not just by the purse she took. She’d seen a photo of him on the pitcher’s mound, coiled up ready to release, his face contorted with concentration, thick, muscular thighs, a lean version of the way he looked now. She’d heard about the surgery on his arm, of coming out of anesthesia midway, and last night, she told him the rest of her own sordid history. Listening to him talk, she’d felt the shock right along with him, as if it was her own body paralyzed and on fire in the operating room. The sensation of it had lingered with her all day. That was when she knew he could stand to hear what she had to say and she knew she could say it. And then he had insisted on seeing her.
Insisted, with a sound in his voice that made her think that some sort of survival depended on it. If not his, then theirs.
He lifted her hand—she was wearing gloves with the fingers cut off—and took her index finger into his mouth, sucking it lingeringly as she yanked it free.
He glanced at his fork and back. “You taste better.”
It seemed so far across the table to him.
“It’s probably better—“ She couldn’t look at him and get the words out.
“I’m not listening to this. You don’t mean it. After last night? No way. That’s what’s between us… what you said. Tell me how we can get rid of it, but please, don’t run away.”
“I can’t get rid of it. I never can get rid of it.”
He tried humoring her. “How about smashing it up in small bits and locking it in a box somewhere so you can have a real life?”
“I have a life!” He was starting to piss her off.
“A fearful one. Wait will you? I know what I’m talking about here. I’m afraid of my dad, of leaving my job, of the voice that tells me when things aren’t right and I’m twice as afraid when I listen to it and end up off the road someplace where someone’s surely not going to like it. But I’m not afraid of you. I was, but not anymore. Because there’s something about you that lights me up, and as strange as it feels, I know I do the same for you. I’ve seen it, Paulette. And only with you. Do you really not know?”
She huffed out a breath. “See, that’s the thing. Sure, I know it and you seem safe enough—which is why I told you all that shit—but so does every other creep before he showed his colors.”
“I’m a creep?”
“No.” She frowned at him. “I don’t know. It’s not so easy, Ike.”
“I know it isn’t.” He paused, looking for something in the plastic cup, but it was empty. “My dad turned me down, by the way.”
“What an asshole. Did he say why?”
“His old story. ‘Prove yourself, be a man.’ I’ve been proving myself my whole fucking life. Nothing I do will ever be good enough. He just wants me under his thumb like he has everyone else.”
She shook her head sympathetically. “Dickless wonder.”
Ike laughed. “It was my fault. I know how he is and still I thought, if he saw what I could bring to DC…but fuck that. I’ll have to figure something else out.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t go like you hoped.”
“It’s OK. I just don’t want you to give up on me the same way. When I let you down, then ditch me. Or bitch me out. But Pauli, the way you’re making the rules, I’ll only be safe when I’m dead. You may as well kill me now and get it over with. I bet you could.”
“That’s not even funny.” He didn’t sound nearly as disturbed by that as he should have been. She glanced over her shoulder toward home.
“Can I come over tonight?”
“No. It’s—“ She felt dangerous, blinked back tears. Fuck him and fuck them all.
“—not that simple. Right.” He tilted his head to attract her eyes, but she refused to look up. “Paulette,” he said, and his voice was a caress that matched his soothing touch on her arm.
And in that instant, her fist cocked back, exploding into his shoulder. “I didn’t say you could touch me!”
He blinked up at her, ignoring the pain in his shoulder. “I didn’t say you could hit me.”
It looked like he was going to reach for her again, “You want me to hit you again?”
“Not especially. Still going to dump me?”
“That’s what you were winding up for, right? ‘Listen, Ike…’—that’s the talk, isn’t it?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then tell me.” He contorted his shoulders as the only sign he was trying to stretch around the bruise. She started to speak, shut her mouth again as if no proper words would come.
“You like me?” She nodded, staring at the weathered grain of the table. “You used to hate me, though, didn’t you?”
Her eyes smarted, as she began mechanically running her finger through a groove in the wood. The finger Ike had in his mouth a few minutes ago.
“It’s OK. I think I understand it now, I do. And you still feel it sometimes, probably.”
“It comes up… sometimes,” she said in a voice that wasn’t her voice, or hadn’t been her voice for a long, long time. “It comes over me… that you’re…that you’re bad, that you’re going hurt me and I can’t make that voice shut up.”
“So you want to break up with me to make it stop?”
She nodded, the tears flowing now, just flowing down her cheeks with no effort to hide them. Ike could see it; it would be OK if he did. That much she knew.
“Is there another way?” He had reached across the table again, laying his hand on the table, open to hers, inviting her. “I’m going to take your hand,” he said and he did that.
She looked up at him, feeling the tension building again. “Can you kiss me?” She shook her head no, but they were looking deep into each other’s eyes. He could see it, she knew he could, the tenderness in there, and the terror and the anger all tangled up in a seething knot, and still he looked back at her with calmness. Oh, she almost loved him then!
He still had her hand, which she had forgotten until he started squeezing it; harder and harder he pressed till it was beginning to hurt. How far would he go?
“Kiss me now,” he said, and she did, she kissed him. The desire for him lit up, right here in a cold November park in the fucking damp drizzle. He was practically breaking her fingers. Her offended hiss made him release her, and she shook and massaged her hand. No worse than after a fight, and better a kiss for it than a jab in the jaw.
He was watching her, her expression, her hands. “Tell me you love me.”
“Yes, you do.” He got up from the table, stepping backward over the bench, gesturing her to him. She didn’t follow at first and then she did.
“I think I love you, Paulette. I know. It’s the last thing you want to hear. It’s crazy, but maybe I’m crazy and I never knew it. It wouldn’t be a first, me being slow on the uptake. But you feel it too, I see it in your face. No promises, no plans, we can just do it like we want to, but… “ He looked down at their hands that had, of their own accord, entwined again, her fingers testing and writhing against his. “It’s harder for you. I want you to be able to feel it. It might help, you know, if you could.”
He stretched his arm backward, taking her hand with it, behind his back. His lips close to hers, he whispered: “Kiss me.”
She did, and it was soft and then needy, and she felt as if she knew what he wanted her to do. Her fingers dug into his hand as hard as she could, and he yelped, still kissing her.
“Tell me you love me,” he said into her ear as his arm drew her closer. The rain was splashing down harder now, making a mess of puddles in the rutted, frozen ground.
“No, motherfucker, because I don’t.” But she laughed.
“Go on,” he said, grinning back at her.
Oh, what did he expect? A flash of knee to the ribs, kicking his feet out from under him and down he went—laughing—into the wet. She came down after.
“I knew you did,” he said, choking the words out between bursts of laughter, one arm protectively shielding his ribs.
“I’m not saying it,” she said, but she felt it, and they grinned at each other in the rain and the cold. “You’re not really hurt, are you? I tried not to—“
“Winded maybe,” he winced, and started laughing again, which seemed to increase his distress, and made him laugh harder. “A little tender. Once you’re hit by a baseball clocking 90 miles per hour, you stop being so scared.”
He laughed at the stupidest things. There she was in the pouring rain, in the middle of a public park, straddling Ike, beloved Ike Duckworth, stretched beneath her on the sodden ground. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t.” He was smiling up at her, reaching toward her face with his free hand. He coughed, which looked really painful.
“Stop talking, Ike, it’s hurting you.” She dropped her forehead to his. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” he said, with heartbreaking tenderness.
“Come here.” He extended his arm to wrap her close.
Paulette flopped over beside him in the mud, her heart thudding wildly, though when he saw her coming down, he looked worried for a moment. She laid a hand on his chest and studied his eyes. “This is hard,” she said, as she moved gingerly into his embrace.
“Is it over?” he asked warily.
She nodded and hung onto him harder. It occurred to her that maybe he really wasn’t afraid. It was definitely part of his appeal. They lay like that in the wintry drizzle, as her heart rate dropped and her fist began to throb.
“We’ll have to do this again sometime,” he said, regrettably laughing some more.
She wasn’t quite sure what was so funny, but her gaze had drifted from his eyes to his lips, and she kissed him to take his breath away.
She couldn’t say what he had said, but she felt light inside just the same, as strange words began to form that she thought one day she might be able to say.
You can catch up on the earlier chapters here.