The next morning, Bruce stood with his hands shoved into the pockets of his shorts, silent, stoic, as Alexa packed her few things in her bag, preparing to leave for her retreat at the Hermitage. He couldn’t speak. What was there to say? She’d decided. It didn’t matter what he wanted. How much he hurt. How angry her decision made him. How panicked he was at her leaving.
Why? Why? Why? Why?
They hadn’t made love last night. The first time they’d slept together without touching, the air between them charged and fraught with recriminations. It felt ominous, and now he fought the press of hot, angry, helpless tears behind his eyes.
When she was ready she set her bag at the top of the loft stairs and turned to him. “Come here,” she whispered, taking his hand and leading him to the edge of their mattress on the floor, tugging him gently until he sat beside her. She wrapped her arms around her shins and gazed across the room toward the dormer windows in its sloped wall.
His gut swirled with acid, his chest fluttering and pinching with tension and a kind of premonitory grief and loneliness as he waited for her to speak. He absently pressed the heel of his hand against his diaphragm to ease the pain. He was powerless to change his circumstances. All he could do was allow her to say her piece, do her thing. He spoke anyway.
“It’s fine. You do what you have to do.”
“You don’t understand why I’m leaving, do you?”
He glared at the floor. “I’ll be fine. The kids’ll be fine. We’re good.”
“How do I make you understand? This isn’t about us. About you.”
He raised his eyes to hers and dropped them again, clamping down on his jaw. No matter what she said, he couldn’t help feeling betrayed. Abandoned. Furious. Old wounds flared in his heart, burning hot and raw. He should have known better.
“I want you to know, the time we’ve spent together has been wonderful. But… the circumstances, around my job and everything… it was a mistake to get so involved so quickly. It’s distorted things.”
“Distorted?” he blurted. What is she saying? “I know what I’m feeling.”
She stroked his arm, his rigid shoulder. “I know. I feel it too. But it scares me.”
“It scares me, too. This hasn’t happened to me before, you know. I don’t do this!”
“I know. It’s not who we are. It really, really isn’t who I am. But my life was falling apart, and I felt weak. Scared. And you were there. So kind and supportive and… manly. That’s why I don’t trust my dependance on you. That scares me more than anything. I really, really don’t want to be saved, you know? I need to rely on myself.”
He shook his head. “I wouldn’t stop you,” he murmured.
“Please try to understand. I just need time to figure out who I am and what I want. My whole life I’ve been afraid of being trapped.” She clenched her fists on either side of her head and shook them. He swallowed at the intensity of her expression. “Getting caught up in a romantic relationship is not going to help me do that. That’s the myth that all women fall victim to. Our whole society is set up that way. We aren’t given the power or the desire to stand alone. And it enfeebles us so we come to think our identity is limited by our attachment to a man.”
He rubbed his eyes, listening to her words, that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the pain in his heart.
She stood up and lifted her bag.
“I can’t belong to you. Or anyone. I’m sorry this comes at a bad time for you. But you’ll be okay. You need to be strong, too.” She exhaled and descended the stairs, disappearing from view.
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