“Jesse, when are you going to tell me where we are going?” I asked tiredly as we loaded everything into the car.
It was almost dark now.
All the walking from the previous day had made me so exhausted I could barely stand upright. My legs felt like noodles.
I reached back and threw my hair into a French braid, plaiting it tightly against my skull to get all the wayward strands out of my face.
He laughed as he opened the passenger door for me. “I told you, it’s a surprise.”
I sighed warily, crawling in. I didn’t like surprises.
“Listen, Jesse, I can’t do any more hikes so if this is some — ”
“Fiona, we’re not going on a hike, just relax!” Jesse groaned and slammed the door.
Through the tinted windows I saw him roll his eyes.
I sighed and gave up. Whatever he had planned, I was in no position to stop it.
While Jesse threw everything into the trunk I glared around the interior of his new Mercedes.
The S class 450 sedan.
Irritation vexed me.
Did Jesse really have to drive this nice of a car? I mean, many different ways could he throw this relationship out of balance?
He was already Mr. Perfect.
And now this.
I glowered at the vehicle as if it had done something to me.
The annoying part was how totally unnecessary the thing was.
I supposed it was nice to have for long drives like this — the ride was smooth and the seats heated and comfortable — but otherwise it was completely over the top, ostentatious, a waste of money.
Jesse always had to have the shiniest toys, no matter how excessive. He made a ton of money and worked insane hours so I guess he was entitled.
But still, a 120,000 dollar car in a pedestrian mecca like San Francisco where no one drove, there was never any parking, and its owner walked to work was downright ridiculous.
Not to mention it cost him an additional monthly fee to pay for a parking space in a garage two blocks away just so no one would break in or steal it. Then there was all the maintenance costs, which on a luxury Benz wasn’t cheap.
The finance major in me couldn’t help but find all the flaws in this decision. Jesse rolled his eyes when I called him on it, saying he paid upfront for it so there was no interest or monthly payments, which I suppose was something. I still gave him a lecture anyway.
But it only seemed to amuse him. The whole time he was biting his lip and trying not to laugh although I couldn’t find anything remotely funny about the conversation.
“I love it when you lecture me, Fiona,” he tried to make light.
I had rolled my eyes. “I’m serious. You can’t just waste money like that it’s not — ”
“Fiona,” he finally sighed. “If I tell you my annual gross salary, will you finally drop this and leave it alone?”
A long, uncomfortable pause followed.
And I — true to awkward form — blinked, gulped, and changed the subject.
I didn’t want to know how much money Jesse made. I knew it was a lot.
He tried to tell me a few times — Jesse always loved to brag and his ego was out of control — but I always stopped him, all but covering my ears.
I didn’t need another reason to remind myself how inferior I was compared to him. Nothing else that would widen the gulf between us.
Jesse opened the driver’s side door and climbed in.
“Ready?” He asked smiling.
My heart raced at the sight of him, all my earlier irritation melting away. “Yes,” I piped.
While we drove away, I immediately got him talking about work again, negating any possibility of a conversation about me, which was the goal. I was sure he saw through it, but he entertained my questions nonetheless. Jesse had been interrogating me a lot on this trip and I needed a break, so he was giving it to me.
Who knew how long that would last.
Probably when he took my shirt off later and saw all the self inflicted wounds on my ribs.
I shuddered at the thought and turned my focus out the window.
The winding drive through the forest was beautiful. As we glided through the flora, a sea of trees enshrouded us like a large floral blanket.
I wondered where he was taking me. Somewhere far apparently, I surmised, as the time passed.
I gazed wistfully at Jesse’s profile as we talked.
Even from this limited vantage point, his beauty was on full display.
It was hard not to stare.
Jesse’s hair was truly an arresting shade of black. His long, shoulder-length tresses gushed from roots to ends like oil, cascading around his ears with the jet of ink and the smoothness and suppleness of liquid. His snow white complexion was the exact opposite color and texture — hard and fair, marble and granite.
My eyes drifted, down from his face to his long, sinewy arms, and the masculine branched out veins underneath.
Further down, Jesse’s legs, long and slender, took up all of the space the driver’s side had allowed, so that his knees were almost touching the wheel.
I didn’t know what I ever did to deserve a man so tall, being just shy of 5 foot 5 myself.
As he spoke, his red lips moved feverishly around the words he voiced, revealing the hyper sharp, vampire-esque fang cuspids anchoring his top set of teeth.
I didn’t deserve him. I really didn’t know what he saw in me.
Before this train of thought could really take off I shook it off and refocused, jumping back into the conversation with full force.
As Jesse chirped on, I tried to scrape the dried blood caked underneath my nails. When the opportunity presented itself, I would viciously scrub them clean.
Beyond that, I had no idea how I was going to hide the injuries on my ribs long enough for sufficient healing to take place. A week? Maybe more? Maybe less with makeup?
I would have to insist we turned the lights off tonight. There was no way around it. Even dim lighting would expose these bloodied cuts and bruises. I could reject his advance outright, but, knowing Jesse, that would only increase suspicion. I had never rejected him. Ever. Whatever he wanted at whatever time — I was down.
I was trying to be the ideal girlfriend.
If that meant being a sex slave, so be it. If it’s what he wanted, I would always oblige.
But, as an aside, with my history, this task was not always easy. It was hard enough to strangle the PTSD under normal circumstances, let alone during particularly violent (consensual) sex, but I was getting better at it.
All those fears had fucked up my sex life for far too long. I was tired of it.
That didn’t mean it didn’t take its toll. The only difference now was, I became so good at concealing everything — like the scared facial expressions, body movements, sounds, etc. — that Jesse didn’t notice. He could really let go without any fear of holding back, which was what I wanted for him.
I was able to get through the sex without hyperventilating or making up some bullshit excuse to leave, like go pee or brush my teeth or something.
Back on point.
If I was somehow able to get him to agree to turn the lights off tonight, he wouldn’t see.
What I would do about the shower was another dilemma.
We always showered together. And I couldn’t come up with a good excuse for any sudden deviation from that normal routine.
I rotated each conflict around in my head like a spatial object, examining every angle.
The only defense I could think of was the whole body insecurity excuse and that one was already wearing thin. I had used it this morning to get him out of the tent and keep his eyes away from my chest as I changed but I could tell he didn’t buy it. Not even a little. I remembered the suspicious glare he gave me as he walked out.
Maybe I could just hop in and out of the water really quickly before he could see. That seemed like an option. . .
I groaned. What would he do if he saw the cuts. I already knew what his reaction would be.
Horror. Confusion. Shock.
He was going to freak out. Lose his shit.
The standard reaction.
He would have no clue why someone would do that to their own body.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Panic clamped down on my body like a vice.
Jesse always wanted to know more about my torment but did he really want to know this? Did he want to see the (rare but horrifying incidents of) self harm?
Doubtful. No one wanted to see that.
He already knew I was broken but at that point he would see the extent of it.
Broken beyond repair.
This was a downhill slope.
Once he saw this, he was going to demand that I finally tell him everything, which I was never going to do, which would piss him off even more.
So more lies, excuses, and deflections to create in my head.
I moaned, dreading all the elaborate mental acrobatics this latest challenge was going to require.
Part of me wanted to regret the scratches, but looking back I couldn’t see any alternative, any other viable course of action. . .
Would I rather him have seen me shaking and gasping for air on the ground, arms wrapped around torso in full on basket case mode?
No, that would be worse.
I returned to the problem at hand.
Looking forward, if I could get through this temporary crisis, I would need to plan for the aftermath — to figure out how to deal with the scars when — and if — they healed. It had been a year since I had sliced myself with my nails like that and I was afraid the skin wouldn’t recover like it used to. There would be no hiding anything from him at that point.
The old marks from before last night were visible only up close and in bright lighting.
These were bound to be much, much worse.
I contemplated booking an appointment with my dermatologist in advance for one of those laser procedures I always saw advertised in the media. Ugh. But then I would have to explain to him how I got them, and that wouldn’t —
“Are you okay?” Jesse’s voice sounded abruptly, interrupting my reverie.
The unfriendly tone of his voice startled me. It was a striking departure from his usual adoring caress.
I snapped back into reality.
“What?” I asked confusedly, slightly perturbed that he interrupted my precious plotting session.
“You seem like you’re mind is somewhere else.”
His voice had an edge to it. It seemed out of place given the lighthearted banter of our most recent conversation.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because I just asked you a direct question and you didn’t respond.”
The heat rose to my face.
I closed my eyes and exhaled.
Embarrassment and guilt flooded through me in alternating rushes.
What a terrible girlfriend I was.
I inhaled and spoke, trying to moderate the tone of my voice.
“I’m so sorry Jesse. How rude of me. What did you ask?”
He ignored my question.
“What were you thinking about?” he asked irritatedly, ignoring my attempt to sidetrack back. I could hear the mix of frustration, suspicion, and annoyance burning in his voice.
I tried to speak around the lump in my throat. “Oh, you know, just work stuff,” I squeaked. The pitch of my voice was much higher than normal, giving me away.
That was a sure fire lie.
I looked over.
His grip tightened on the wheel.
My eyes darted to his face.
He was pissed.
I didn’t mean to tick him off. Then again I knew lying always did that.
Reflexively, I grasped for a chance to change the subject. “So what kind of trouble is Zach getting into lately?” I piped.
Zach was Jesse’s little brother. He was know for his troublemaking and had so many incidents that the Dean of his college knew him on a first, middle, and last name basis.
This subject always cheered him up.
But this time, Jesse didn’t respond.
I looked over and his hardened expression had not changed.
He clearly was not amused by my half hearted attempt to distract.
“Jesse?” I probed lightly.
I looked back over at him. He was still wearing the same angry mask.
A wave of guilt and sadness washed over me.
He looked really offended.
I tried to keep the tears in as I spoke. “Jesse, I’m — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. . .”
The words trailed off aimlessly without any direction.
But even if they weren’t coherent, they were still sincere, still true.
A long pause.
I was afraid to look back over at his expression so I just stared ahead like a coward.
Finally his voice sliced through the air like a razor blade. Hostile, mean, and cold. “I’m going to be honest with you, Fiona, you really annoy me sometimes.”
My heart broke its meter.
A wave of melancholy crashed over me.
I bit my lip.
The tears welled up in my eyes. It took everything I had to keep them from spilling over. Speaking was out of the question as the thickness of my throat would surely give me away.
So I just sat there, wounded and waiting.
He looked over, saw my frozen, corpse-like position, and sighed.
“Look,” he began. His voice was less antagonistic when he spoke again, more controlled and even, but still terse. “I’m not trying to hurt you. But there’s only so much. . .”
He paused, trying to find the right word.
“. . .deception. . . that I can take. I told you before, I can tell when you’re like totally pulling the wool over my eyes, just like bullshitting me completely and I try to be patient and understanding about it, because I know for you it’s like, some kind of defense mechanism, I don’t know, I’m not a therapist, but at some point it gets a little hard.”
I bit my lip, hoping he would never know how much that hurt. I didn’t speak.
Instead I just took the time to contemplate what he’d just said.
Those few sentences revealed a lot.
He obviously knew I was a basket case, enough to need the help of a therapist, enough to warrant professional speech and behavior-based translation. He clearly knew all my blunting and deflecting were clear indicators of some kind of abuse, even if it wasn’t clear what that abuse might be. And the revelation that he usually overlooked all of these things out of patience and respect for my own comfort and self ease meant that he had been on to me a lot longer and deeper than I had ever expected.
None of this was good news.
“I’m sorry, Jesse,” I whispered. “How can I make it right?”
He shrugged, his voice still ice cold. “You can tell me what you were really thinking.”
A long pause.
“I — I was just worried about something I’m going to have to do is all.”
His voice was sardonic. “What do you have to do?”
“Nothing, Jesse, nothing, never mind,”I lied.
He slammed his hand on the wheel, making me jump. “See, Fiona, this is exactly what I’m talking about, it’s so fucking frustrating for me when you act like this! When you just make shit up and push me away! It sucks. It really sucks. I’m tired of it. I’ve had it.”
The words recoiled and hit me like the lash of a whip.
I braced as the pain sunk in.
Jesse deserved so much better. That much was clear.
I wasn’t cutting it. I was too fucked up.
Well, this one was going to hurt.
I didn’t even want to contemplate how much.
I was going to die — metaphorically — when I got home.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
I sighed. “Okay. You can drop me off right here.”
He bristled. “What?”
“Just on the side of the road is fine,” I continued wistfully. “I’m sure I can get an Uber or something.”
The irritation in his voice began to mount. “What are you talking about?”
My voice was lifeless, empty. “There should be a rest stop coming up. I can walk.”
Brody would pick me up. I knew he’d come if I asked him to.
Jesse’s volume increased dramatically. He was about to blow up. “Fiona, what the fuck are you talking about? Why would I drop you off on the side of the road?!”
My voice shrank and my eyes widened. “I’m just trying to make this easier for you.”
How could he fault me for that?
“Make what easier?!” He shouted, any pretense of control now flying out of the window.
Wasn’t it obvious?
I didn’t speak, and instead just clasped the edge of my seat.
A long pause.
Then his tone changed. It was softer, more surprised.
“Do you think I’m — breaking up with you ? Or something — ?” He asked incredulously.
“Well, you are, aren’t you?” I asked confusedly, the tears welling up and spilling over now.
“No! Of course not!” he yelled. “Why on Earth would you think that?!”
My lip quivered and I could barely speak around the thickness of my throat. “I-I don’t know, I just — just thought — ”
I couldn’t form a coherent response.
Then he stepped on the brakes sharply — so sharply I fell forward and almost hit the dash — and pulled over to the side of the road. A sea of redwoods soon surrounded us.
He slammed the gear into park.
“Fiona,” he closed his eyes and exhaled in frustration. He was trying to moderate the volume of his voice but it was still loud. “I love you. I’m in love with you. Why would you ever think I was breaking up with you? Why would you think I would ever leave you alone at night on the side of the road?!”
I didn’t say anything. I just froze as the tears fell from my eyes into my mouth.
“Answer me!” he snapped.
My voice finally found me. “W-well you were just so mad at me, I thought that — that’s what you wanted!”
He squinted incredulously as the words sunk in.
Then he closed his eyes and sighed. His face fell into his hands. “Fiona,” he began calmly but exasperatedly. His voice was tired, aged. Like he was explaining something to a kindergartener for the tenth time. “I tell you I love you all the time. I shower you with expensive gifts. I take you on vacations. I treat you like a queen.” His voice began to escalate. “Why would you ever question my love for you? Why would you ever think such an blasphemous thing? Have I ever given you any reason to doubt me? Have I ever been anything but the perfect boyfriend to you?! Have I?!”
Each question increased in volume like a crescendo.
The logic of the words slowly seeped in, followed by a wave of guilt and humiliation.
He continued calmly, back in control now. “Yes, I was annoyed with you momentarily. Because you hide from me and push me away but it’s because I love you that I want to know more about you, that you frustrate me so, don’t you see?”
Jesse reached over and ran his hands through my hair, intertwining his fingers through the messy plaits of my braid.
The words came out before I could stop them. “I guess sometimes it’s hard to believe that someone like you would ever love someone like me.”
The silence was deafening.
I peeked up at his expression.
He was squinting incredulously again, like he couldn’t comprehend the words. Like I had just spoken in a different language. “Someone like me, someone like you. . .” He repeated dubiously. Then pop his voice rose to a normal volume, but the perplexity remained. “It’s hard for you to believe that someone like me would fall for someone so beautiful, smart, amazing, funny, like you? That’s hard to believe?”
He was so confused by what I had just said.
I was so confused by what he had just said.
Jesse sighed in deep frustration. “Fiona, how many times do I have to tell you how beautiful you are? Your hair, your skin, your eyes, your body, they’re all so pretty, I know that a lot of women are insecure but for you it like doesn’t make any sense, it’s so out of place. . .”
He trailed off, deep in thought.
“. . . And you thought I was breaking up with you?” He picked up my words again skeptically. It was almost like he was talking to himself now. “You thought I was going to leave you on the side of the road?”
“I — I’m sorry — ”
“Someone really hurt you,” he surmised coldly, cutting me off like I hadn’t even spoken, looking forward. “I know I’ve said that before but someone or something really hurt you and that’s the only way to explain this.”
Jesse gestured toward my general direction.
He spoke like I was a broken toy.
I couldn’t really argue. It still stung.
He shook his head and rubbed his face in his hands. “You drive me crazy, Fiona. You literally drive me crazy sometimes, I’m not going to lie.”
I didn’t really know how to respond to that. The only thing I could think of to do was apologize. “Sorry — ”
“ — but I love you, I’m in love with you, and I have never once thought of breaking up with you. Is that clear?” he continued almost venomously.
The panic and anxiety faded away.
“Turn around,” he demanded.
I obeyed, rotating to face him. He pressed his tongue against mine, and pulled me deeper into his lap.
The saltwater still lingered in my mouth from all the earlier tears, and I was sure he could taste them.
He didn’t pull away when I expected him to. Instead he kissed me harder, tightening his grip around my jaw and moving his hands all over my body.
“I’m trying to love you,” he whispered into my ear. “Why won’t you let me?”
I kissed his neck but otherwise didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say.
Jesse wound his fingers through the roots of my hair and pulled hard. I grabbed his shirt and lifted it up. Before I knew it, almost all of our clothes were on the floor and the windows were covered in fog. The darkness protected the cuts on my ribs from his sights. My heart swelled to ten times its normal size, exited my body, and latched itself onto the man across from me.
When we finished, Jesse combed him hands through my hair, kissed my forehead, and whispered, “Of course I love you, you silly, beautiful girl. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”