It’s two weeks after Christmas. Ella should be here soon. We didn’t have plans to hang out, but she called me up this morning and said she had a surprise for me.
My phone rings. I look down at it, expecting it to be her saying she’s on her way. Instead, Brian’s name stands out on the caller ID. Shit, I completely forgot about our session.
“Hey, Brian,” I say. “Ella is about to stop by, so I may have to cut this a little short.”
“That’s okay. We can make up the time on another day, if you need. It sounds like you two have become fast friends. I think every time we’ve spoken lately you mention you have plans.”
“I’ve been flirting with her,” I blurt.
“Okay,” Brian responds, with almost no inflection, so I can’t tell if he approves of this or not.
“I don’t really think it is okay, though,” I tell him, pacing into the kitchen.
“Because I don’t think I’m in a good place for a relationship right now.”
“You’ve made an incredible amount of progress in the past several months. In my professional opinion, there would be nothing wrong with you becoming romantically involved.”
“But I still haven’t dealt with this CTE thing,” I say.
“In what way are you hoping to deal with it, Ben? The advanced tests we’ve spoken about?”
“Yes, that and the reality that my brain is pretty much a ticking time bomb.”
“If you want to schedule the tests, you should. I think it would be good for your mindset to know definitively if there are signs, and if so, how advanced they are. And I think we need to find another way for you to talk about your brain. Bomb isn’t exactly the best imagery or the healthiest metaphor. It’s not like CTE is going to suddenly explode without warning and shred through all of your synapses in a single day. There will be warning signs. Early symptoms. Most likely you’ll have time to adjust to each one as they manifest.”
“Most likely,” I deadpan. “But not guaranteed.”
“No, not guaranteed. Just like it’s not guaranteed that you even have CTE. Can I be perfectly frank with you?”
“If I were going through what you are, I’d be scared out of my fucking mind. It’s okay to be scared, Ben. No one expects you to just – poof – get over it. In fact, it’s okay to be scared about this for years. Because it is a scary thing you’re facing. We’ve talked a lot about emotions, about listening to them and giving in to them, and I know that’s been an adjustment for you.”
He’s not kidding. Most of my life, I was raised in that small, hard cage of masculinity. Gender conditioned not to cry, not to talk about my feelings. Men don’t cry. Men don’t get mushy. Men don’t approach a person who hurt them and try to work it out civilly. Anger, violence, lust: these things are okay though, because, “boys will be boys.” Is it any wonder that after years of bottling everything else up, when men are pushed too far, or feel powerless, or feel like they’ve been wronged in some way – real or imagined – they get so angry that they snap? Violently? I didn’t even realize how much shit I’d kept inside until my first few sessions with Brian, where it all just started pouring out of me the second someone told me it was okay to be upset.
I rub a hand over my face. “But how can I move on with the threat of CTE hanging over my head? How can I ask someone else to take that on?”
“Who’s to say you have to move on? Like I said, it’s perfectly healthy to continue to be scared about this. It would be less healthy to let that fear dictate every decision in your life. Some, yes, sure. Like maybe you don’t start jumping out of planes just for the thrill of feeling alive, or pick up a hobby that might lead to more brain trauma. But making decisions for a potential partner, or before symptoms manifest, maybe not. And who is to say that anything even becomes romantic with Ella? She might not feel that way about you.”
I have to admit the man makes a good point. “You’re right. She’s been nothing but friendly toward me.”
I hesitate for a moment.
“I sense a but here,” Brian says.
“But every now and then, I catch a blush on her cheeks. Or a look on her face.”
“And you assume they’re of a romantic nature?”
I think back to two days ago, when we set up the dining room furniture. I’d had to pick the end of the table up and swivel it around into place, and the way she’d looked me over, the intensity in her gaze, followed by a quick turn away, but not quick enough for me to miss the way her cheeks colored…
“I think they might be,” I tell Brian.
“And how do you feel about her?”
“I…I’m still trying to figure that out. She’s beautiful. In a deceptively innocent, wide-eyed kind of way that pairs hilariously with her sometimes diabolical sense of humor. The other day I turned my TV on after she left and Benny and the Jets just started pouring out of it. I laughed for like five minutes straight.”
“I’m missing the joke,” Brian says.
“My mom called me Benny on the phone and Ella heard it. Ever since, she’s been slipping that song into my life. Last week she managed to change my ring tone to it.”
“So she’s beautiful and she makes you laugh. What else?”
I feel like he’s herding me toward something here, but I agree that I need to figure this thing out between me and Ella, so I decide to play along. “In between the laughter, we keep having these really deep, serious discussions.”
“Politics, race, sexuality, religion, the military-industrial complex. You name it, we talk about it.”
“Your fear of CTE? Your depression and anxiety?”
“Uh…no. Not that.”
“It goes back to not wanting to get involved with someone while CTE is hanging over my head. She’s like this bright star of positivity in my life right now, and I don’t want to do anything to snuff it out.”
“Has Ella brought CTE up with you? Or Zach?”
Hearing my brother’s name is like a punch to the gut. “No. She’s been incredibly respectful of my privacy.”
“And you don’t think she’s quiet because she’s worked at least some of what you’re going through out for herself? It wouldn’t be difficult to find evidence online and make assumptions from there. The only way to make sure that she hasn’t made the wrong ones is to tell her yourself.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for that,” I admit.
“Has Ella told you a lot about herself?”
I pause, not liking where I think this is headed. “She has.”
“To summarize, you don’t want to get involved with her romantically, because you don’t think it would be fair to her. You don’t want to be upfront with her about CTE and depression, because you want to keep her humor and lightness in your life. So instead, you’re keeping her in a limbo where she continuously puts herself out there and you hold everything about yourself back. Tell me, does that seem fair, Ben?”
The breath I’ve been holding whooshes out of me noisily. “No. It makes me sound like a selfish asshole. Goddamn it, Brian. You ever think you should have been a prosecutor instead of a therapist?”
“You’ve always wanted me to be honest with you, Ben. To ask you to examine your own behavior. That’s all I’m doing right now. Trust me, I get it. It sucks. My husband just did this to me last night, because I haven’t been doing my part around the house or with the kids, and he’s had to pick up the slack. Look, I’m not telling you to unload everything on Ella when she shows up on your doorstep today, but I think that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to let her in a little. And to let yourself admit that you might be flirting with her because you’re interested in her in a romantic way.”
“And you’re sure I can’t blame that on the dosage drop?” I ask, grasping at straws.
“I need time to think about everything.”
“Totally understandable. Don’t rush yourself, Ben. Take all the time you need with this. But a little advice?”
“If you want to flirt with Ella, flirt with Ella. As long as she’s receptive, of course.”
We hang up a few minutes later, with plans to talk again in a couple of days. Now is really one of those times that I wish I could pop open a beer and stare into the fire for a little while, letting my mind go blank. Or jump on the treadmill for an hour. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, though, and Ella said she’d be here by now.
Needing to do something, I pace to the front door, slip my boots and a jacket on, tug my hair up into a bun, and head out to shovel the walkway. Sure, I shoveled it earlier this morning, but we got a flurry a few hours ago, and there’s a light dusting over it.
Ella pulls up not long after. I plant the shovel in the snowbank and walk over to greet her. She gets out of the truck and shuts the door carefully behind her. There’s no sign of her dogs as she walks forward to meet me halfway. I’m super curious now about what this surprise is.
“Okay, so I did a thing,” she says, looking up at me with a slightly nervous expression. “This present I got you, it doesn’t have to be a permanent thing. It can just be on a loaner basis, which the person I got said present from fully understands, so there is no pressure for you to keep said present.”
“Ella, you’re stalling. Is it in the truck?”
I start to walk around her, but she skirts in front of me and holds up her hands. “It is. And I’m stalling because I don’t want to do that thing where I-”
“Get pushy?” I finish for her. Jesus, Brian is right. The woman has been going out of her way to accommodate me.
She stills, her hands dropping back to her sides, her expression falling along with them. “Yeah, that.”
I take her by the shoulders and lean down a little so I can look into her eyes. From this angle, her lashes seem ridiculously long. I want to play connect the dot with the delicate dusting of freckles that spreads across her nose and cheeks.
“Ella, we’re friends now, right?” I force myself to say.
“I hope so,” she answers.
“Then as my friend, I’m asking you to please stop worrying. Sometimes I need a push, or even a swift kick in the ass.”
She chews her lip for a second as she thinks this over. I have a sudden desire to lean forward and pull it out of her teeth with my mouth. For once, I don’t suppress the thought. Her lips are gloriously full, the palest shade of pink.
“But you’ll still tell me if I’m too much?” she asks.
“Yup. Now give me my damn present.”
As I hoped, she grins. She’s practically vibrating beneath my hands, so I let her shoulders go. She bounds back toward the truck, her long legs eating up the ground. I follow after her, letting my gaze slide up those legs. The woman has a great ass. I noticed it that first night we met and have just been avoiding looking at it since. The fact that I had to avoid it tells me more than I want to admit to myself right now, but Brian said I need to examine these feelings, so I file it away for later.
Instead of opening the door, Ella leans up on her toes and looks in through the window, waving me over. I join her, not understanding what I’m supposed to be looking at.
“They fell asleep on the way over,” she whispers.
“They? They? Ella, what did you do?”
At the sound of my voice – which was admittedly pretty loud because of my surprise – the two little balls of what I thought were some sort of white fluff on the backseat stir. A small head with triangular little ears rises from the one closest to the door. A pair of black eyes blink open, and its jaw drops in a wide yawn.
“Did you get me puppies?” I ask her, tugging on her coat sleeve. I sound like a little kid. Hell, right now I feel like a little kid. Because puppies!
She looks up at me, beaming. “I did.”
I nudge her sideways out of the way with my hip and carefully pull open the rear door. She’s laughing at me, but I don’t care. The puppy that’s already awake begins sniffing the air. The one beside it remains conked out. I tug off a glove and reach forward to pet the one looking at me, and it immediately begins to whine and lick my fingers.
“They’re samoyeds,” Ella says from beside me. “My friend Jessica and her husband raise sled dogs, and right now they have more puppies than they can handle. I offered to take a couple off of their hands for them for a few days. If you don’t want to keep them here, Jack has already offered.”
“I don’t have stuff for them,” I say, now petting the puppy. “But yeah, I want to keep them here.”
“I brought all the supplies with me.”
“What are their names?”
“Jessica’s kids named them, so don’t feel like you have to stick with them. The one you’re petting is Boots, and the other one is Doodle.”
“Boots and Doodle,” I say, testing the names out. As silly as they are, I don’t hate them. “How can you tell who is who?”
“The collars. Boots’ is purple and Doodle’s is green. They’re both boys.”
“Hi, Boots,” I say, gently lifting him up. He is so small, and so warm, and so ridiculously fluffy.
Ella leans past me to wake up Doodle with a few gentle pets, then scoops him up too. We stand there next to each other in the driveway for a few minutes, cuddling the dogs. I shift Boots to one arm and wrap the other around Ella’s shoulders to pull her in for a sideways hug.
“Thank you so much for this, and for bringing everything they need. You fucking rock,” I tell her.
Her smile is blinding. “You’re welcome.”
I release her, even though I don’t really want to yet, and together we get the puppies and all their necessities into the house. She brought puppy food, dog bowls, toys, a pet brush, and something she called puppy pads, which are supposed to help with housetraining them.
“Jessica said they’re already pretty good at letting you know when they have to go to the bathroom,” Ella says, laying a pad out by the front door while Doodle sniffs around our discarded boots.
I side-eye her. “You mean go pee-poop?”
She turns away. “I hate you forever.”
Still holding Boots, I scoot around her, so I can see her face. “You blush so easily,” I say, shifting Boots to one arm again like he’s a fluffy little football so I can poke at her cheek with my free hand.
“Stop that,” she says, batting me away. “I do not blush that easily.”
“Okay, fine, but when you do, it’s spectacular. Takes up your whole face.”
She sticks her tongue out at me and then leans down and scoops up Doodle.
We spend the next hour laughing and talking in baby voices and making ridiculous noises and taking far too many pictures as we watch the dogs explore the first floor of the house.
“It’s not just me, right?” I ask her later. “They are uncommonly adorable.”
She joins me on the floor of the sitting room, and Boots immediately jumps from my lap into hers. “It’s definitely not just you. They stay this adorable all through puppyhood, so you better get used to that cute aggression you’re probably feeling right now.”
“Do their tails stay curled like this?” I ask.
“Yup. And just so you know, they kind of look like polar bears when they’re adults.”
“How old are they now?”
“About eight weeks. You could start training them right away if you decide in a few days that you want to keep them.”
I’m pretty sure I already want to keep them, but I stay quiet about that in case my feelings change for some reason. Instead, I ask more questions, about the breed, how much exercise they need, and how best to train them.
“Negative reinforcement doesn’t work with them, so yelling will do you little good. I’ve found with housetraining, it’s best to bring them outside a lot, and bring treats with you, so if they go,” she shoots me a dark look, “pee-poop,” I grin at her, and she rolls her eyes, “you give them a treat and it lets them know that going to the bathroom outside is good. You don’t do that if they go on the puppy pad, and they’re smart enough of a breed to work it out for themselves even at this stage that it’s better to go out than in.”
“Do I let them sleep in my room tonight?”
She leans forward to scoop Boots up and snuggle him. “It’s really up to you, but I would. Up until today, they’ve been around their mama and littermates, so they’re used to cuddling up to them at night. I have no idea how tall your bed is, so you might want to think about tugging a mattress onto the ground to make it easier for them to get down if they have to. And of course, put some puppy pads in the room.”
She raises her head, lifting Boots with her so that they’re both looking at me with puppy eyes. I can’t tell who’s cuter. “Please let us sleep with you” she says, miming the puppy’s voice.
“Really, Ella?” I ask, giving her a look.
Her eyes go wide as she realizes how that sounded. “I meant both puppies. Not me and Boots. That would be unfair to Doodle.”
“Mmhmm,” I say, still grinning.
I open my mouth to keep teasing her, but my phone alarm goes off, ruining the moment. Time to take my meds. This would probably be a good segue into bringing up my depression and anxiety. The only thing is, I have no idea how to casually do that. “Hey, can you watch the dogs? I’m off to down some anti-depressants!”
Argh. Just, no.
I have zero practice with this. I haven’t even told my parents. Both Mom and Dad would be on the next plane out if they knew. I’ll have to ask Brian if he has some pointers.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell her.
“More puppies for meeeeee,” she says, leaning forward to pull Doodle toward her too.
I go upstairs, take my meds, and as I’m walking back down, I FaceTime my Dad.
He answers after the third ring, and his familiar face fills the screen. Behind him, I see the decking of their house and a glimpse of lush, tropical forest even further beyond. He must be outside enjoying the nice weather. Lucky bastard.
“Hi, Dad. Mom with you?”
“She’s inside. One sec, lemme go find her.”
There’s so much movement on his end of the line that I have to look away or I’ll get dizzy.
“Klara! Ben’s on the phone!”
I hear my mom’s distant answer, and within seconds, both of their faces come into view.
“Hi, hon,” Mom says.
“Ella got me a present, and I thought you two would want to see,” I tell them.
I switch the camera direction and head down the hallway toward the sitting room.
“Ella! My parents want to see what you did!” I call, giving her some advanced warning as I near the room.
We find her sprawled out on the floor, limbs akimbo, laughing as the dogs leap and bound and stumble and roll over her, yipping and growling adorably in turns.
“Oh my God, puppies!” my mom shrieks. She grabs my dad by the arm with both hands and starts shaking him, so that he keeps disappearing off screen with every push and re-emerging with every pull. “Hani, look!”
“I see them,” my dad says, laughing at her.
This is the mom I know and love. This woman who gets outrageously excited about small animals. The one who borderline assaults my father whenever she’s overcome with joy. It’s nice to see a glimpse of her again. It’s been far too long.
My stomach sinks. Maybe I haven’t been the only one dealing with depression and anxiety. We’ve never been great, as a family, about talking about our feelings. Or at least the negative ones. It feels like it’s past time we change that.
A thought that I’ll probably regret pops into my head. I switch the camera so now my parents and I are looking at each other. “Did you want to come out and meet them?” I ask.
Mom starts crying in response. Like, face in hands insta-sobbing.
Holy shit. This was not what I was expecting.
Ella whips her head up from the floor, all traces of humor gone. “Is she crying?” she whispers, looking concerned.
The dogs pause on top of and beside her, turning their heads side to side as they perk their little ears toward the sound of my mother’s sobs.
I nod at Ella in answer and decide to step out of the room, switching the camera back to face me.
“Mom, are you okay?” I ask, retreating to the kitchen.
“I’m fine,” she says, waving a hand toward the screen.
Dad slides an arm around her shoulders in comfort and drops a kiss on top of her head. “She’s just overwhelmed,” he says. “She’s had a rough couple of days.”
That sounds familiar. Maybe he was right to be so concerned about her mental health when she was getting pushy with me. I feel like a jackass. First, my selfishness with Ella, and now this.
“Did you guys want to call me back later to talk about coming out here? It might be another week or two. I still have to finish the spare room.”
“We’ll do that,” Dad says. “Love you.”
“You too,” I tell him.
We hang up. I leave my phone in the kitchen and go back to Ella and the puppies. Doodle bounds straight over to me and starts attacking my left foot with his paws, slapping it into submission. I pause where I am and let him have his fun, absorbing the adorableness of the sight and letting it balance out some of the shit of today. Her present could not have been better timed.
“Is your mom okay?” Ella asks.
I raise my head to see her pushing herself back to sitting. Boots lays between her splayed legs, chewing on a toy.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, looking down at the puppy. “I made my mom cry one time when I was in high school. Some horrible comment about how she wasn’t my real mom. It’s the worst thing I think I’ve ever said to someone. I felt like garbage for weeks afterward.”
“Yeah, this feeling is…not good.”
She nods and looks up. Our gazes catch.
“Do you want to meet them when they come out?” I ask her.
Her expression brightens some. “Of course! I feel like your mom and I would really hit it off.” She looks past me, her face full of contemplation. “It must be something about the way she inflates my ego to astronomical proportions every time I talk to her.”
I grin. I can tell she’s trying to lighten the mood, get me to smile, and I really don’t want to deny her that.
“And your dad is pretty much the cutest,” she says, looking back to me.
“I’m sorry, what? Now I need to compete with my old man?”
“Psssh,” she says. “I said he’s the cutest, not -” She cuts herself off, hard, her cheeks flaming red.
I smile. “Not what, Ella?”
She drops her gaze to the puppy, reaches out and ruffles his fur. I don’t think she’ll answer me at first, and then she whispers, “Come on, Ben. You know what you look like.”
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.