“I think you should go home,” Ben said after his parents left.
We stood on opposite sides of the kitchen island. I leaned my hips forward against it as I tried to process what he just said, my hands on the massive slab of butcher block we nearly broke our backs installing. Beneath my fingers, the wood was as smooth as butter. I had oiled it myself a few days after the installation, rubbing food-grade mineral oil onto its surface with painstaking care while Ben started on the herringbone tile that acted as the kitchen backsplash. I had wanted this countertop to be perfect. I had wanted him to look on the job I had done with pride, see my usefulness, and decide to let me hang around a little while longer.
Now he was pushing me away.
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked.
“No,” he told me. “I don’t have the words to thank you for being here the past few days. I may never have them. But this,” he said, motioning between us, “this is starting to feel unhealthy.”
Calm. Stay calm. “How so?”
His eyebrows drew together as he frowned at me, shading those beautiful green orbs. A spill of hair fell forward as he leaned into the island, mirroring my posture. “All I do is take from you. I’ve been relying heavily on your humor and your energy to keep myself distracted and to act as a crutch for when my mood darkened. You’ve had to lie, either outright or by omission, to nearly everyone in your life since we met. I’ve kept you here, as free manual labor, working on my home reno when you could have been hanging out with your family or friends, living your life.”
“Those were all my choices to make.”
He barreled on as if I hadn’t spoken. “And now, you’ve dropped your entire life to come help me and my parents. You’re losing money, maybe even clients. You can’t deny that. You can’t ignore the way that our relationship is negatively impacting you, at least financially.”
I dug my fingernails into the countertop, willing myself to keep my tone level. “Again, my decision. Did you ever stop to think about why I chose to help you? That maybe you were distracting me too?”
His frown deepened.
I took a deep breath before responding. Sofia had told me he might do something like this, try to end things between us because he either couldn’t handle anything romantic right now, or because he was trying to “save me” from himself. If this was motivated by the former, there was little I could do but respect his wishes, if it was the latter, I might be able to make him see reason.
Please, please let it be the latter.
“I spent so much time here because I really like you,” I told him. “You’re fun. You’re funny. You are really nice to look at. Your parents inflate the hell out of my ego with their compliments. You inflate the hell out of my ego with your terrible cribbage play. I like working with my hands. It is literally what I do for a living. Give me a home improvement project and I will gladly offer up my free labor, because I get so much out of seeing a dream or an idea become a reality that being part of bringing it to life is payment enough for me. But aside from that –”
I had to pause for a moment to get my tone back under control. Anger had started to corrupt it. “I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at myself,” I told him. “You think you haven’t been treating me fairly? Well, I haven’t been treating you right either. I’ve been hiding things. Tamping down on any negative emotion around you because I wanted to be this shiny, happy part of your life to balance out all the bullshit you have to deal with simply by being famous and outspoken about things that matter.
“Winters are hard for me, Ben. I’m actually not losing that much money by being here. Business slows to a crawl at the end of January, picks up a little around Valentine’s Day, and then drops off again until spring. I have to save all year just to make it through.”
He straightened, eyes wide in surprise. “I’m sorry Ella. I didn’t know. Doesn’t that prove my point about how one-sided this relationship has been, though? How much I’ve been taking advantage of you?”
I shook my head. “Not really. All it proves is that I’m as complicit in this as you are.”
“What?” he asked, deadpan.
“I didn’t tell you any of this because I was…” I ran a hand through my hair, trying to think of how to phrase this. “I don’t know, babying you isn’t the right term here, but I was definitely working to try and shield you from anything negative.”
His expression hardened. “I’m a grown ass man, Ella.”
“I know you are. I’m sorry for what I did. Trust me.” My laugh was a bitter thing. “And it wasn’t just that motivating my actions. Part of why I didn’t say anything was because, really, what’s a few months of tight living compared to all the hate you receive on Twitter? What are my problems compared to yours?”
Ben crossed his heavy arms over his chest as he met my eyes. “Just because our problems are different, doesn’t mean yours don’t matter.”
“I know that now,” I said. “My sister-in-law helped me to see that. What you need to see is that this imbalance between us isn’t entirely your fault.”
Ben opened his mouth to respond, but I barreled over him, having held so much in for so long that I couldn’t seem to shut the floodgates now that they’d been opened. “Look, you want the whole truth, this is it. We spend so much time snowed in up here that I rarely see my friends during the winter. As for my family, my mother’s depression spikes in winter. She ignores everyone’s advice and self-medicates with pot instead of taking the pills Dad prescribes her. It’s really hard for me to be around her when she’s like this. That might be shitty for me to say, but it’s the truth.
“I stress out for the entire month of January when Jacob is in Somalia. It’s so dangerous over there, and he’s already had several close calls. When he gets home, he and my dad are flat out at the practice with flu season. Sofia is flat out at hers, too. Mental illness is really common up here, and so is addiction, both of which seem to get worse this time of year. Megan and Stacey are in Boston, Charlie is back at college, and Anabel is busy with school and sports and friends. Most winters, that leaves me with my dogs, Jack, Jane, Dave, and Willow. You know how outgoing I am, how social. Having you here has been just as much of a distraction from my own shit as I’ve been for you.”
Ben scrubbed his hands over his face. “Is that supposed to help? You telling me all of this now?” he asked when he pulled them away. “Because it only makes me feel worse for not knowing any of it.”
“And that’s my fault,” I told him. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have known you could handle it.”
He stared at me a moment before responding. “I’m sorry too. For not asking.”
We fell quiet. I stared across the island at him, taking in his expression, noting the way he still seemed to be fighting some sort of battle with himself.
“But you still want me to go home,” I said.
My heart started to break. “Why?”
“Because I’m afraid that if you stay, I’ll use you as a crutch. That when I’m sad, instead of examining why and trying to find a way out of it for myself, I’ll cling to you like I have been. When I feel like I’m fucking dying, I’ll turn to sex with you to remind myself I’m still alive. If I continuously use you as a coping mechanism, I’ll never give myself time to properly grieve or process.”
“I…I understand,” I forced myself to say.
“And I want you to go because I think you need time to process this too. I think you’ve been so caught up in helping me that you might not have given yourself any time to really think this through.”
I turned on my heel and marched out of the kitchen door.
“Where are you going?” he called after me.
“To get my e-reader!” I yelled back at him.
I peeked in on the puppies to see them passed out together in their dog bed in the living room. Then I headed upstairs, grabbed my device, and returned to the kitchen. On the way, I pulled up my library of e-books.
“Here,” I said, shoving it across the counter toward him.
“What is this?”
“This is four books on the study of the human brain, three on head injuries, two on effective strategies for combatting depression and anxiety, two filled with memory exercises, three self-help books for dealing with grief, one on dealing with loss, three more on coping with chronic illness, and I don’t know how many others that I just can’t remember right now,” I told him. “While you’ve been asleep, I’ve been reading. I’ve been doing research. I’ve been strategizing ways to help you. Trust me, I’ve thought this through.”
He pushed my e-reader away. “Planning is all well and good, but it might do nothing to prepare you for the reality.”
“I know that.”
“Do you?” he asked, voice rising. “They said my anger flashpoints are lower than they should be. What if it gets worse? What if I snap? What if I end up becoming violent?”
“I’ll start taking self-defense classes and keep taking them until I can kick your ass,” I answered, having to work to keep my voice calm.
“I outweigh you by a hundred pounds, Ella!” he shouted. He was trying to scare me. Push me away. It wouldn’t work.
I planted my fists on the countertop and leaned forward, feeling almost desperate now. “Then I’ll fight dirty.”
His expression was full of disbelief. “You’re too nice to fight dirty.”
“No, I’m not,” I told him. “You don’t know me well enough yet to say that. You haven’t seen me when I vent my anger. All I’ve ever been around you is happy, bubbly, Ella. Just because that’s a huge part of my personality, it doesn’t mean it’s the entirety. I get fucking sad, sometimes. I get so mad I end up crying, because if I don’t cry, I’ll scream. Certain times of the month, I can even be an overly sarcastic, borderline bitch. Because I get hormonal.
“And who’s to say our relationship will even last long enough for me to find out what symptoms you end up manifesting?” I asked. “I’m telling you I want to be here for you, now. That I want to be with you, now. That I want to help you through this. That doesn’t mean that I want to get married and have your babies. I’m twenty-three. I don’t even know if I want children. Literally anything could happen between us. We might be great for a solid two years and then not be able to get over our communication problems and break up. Or five years and fall out of love. There might be a nuclear apocalypse. Mother nature might finally say “ENOUGH!”, and decide to murder all of us.”
He gripped the edge of the counter and leaned back again, head down, breathing deeply. “Don’t you understand, Ella?” he asked, looking up at me from behind a curtain of hair. “I can’t even think about any of that. I can’t imagine what could happen between us, because, in all your imaginary scenarios, you’re forgetting one thing. I might not even be me.” He straightened and pounded a fist against his chest, tears welling in his eyes. “This me. The me I am right now. I might be someone I don’t…” Tears spilled down his cheeks “That I don’t recognize.”
I stood there and stared at him, so sad that I couldn’t even cry. So stunned that I had nothing to say in response. Because he was right. He was absolutely right. I’d been overly optimistic. In my planning, Ben’s symptoms were manageable. They manifested slowly enough that we had time to recognize them and react.
What if…what if they weren’t? What if they didn’t? What if he was fine one day, and then the next he had trouble remembering my name? What if I heard a noise, walked around a corner, and discovered him on the floor, in the throes of a seizure? What if he got mean? Really mean? Or he tried to hurt me, or his parents…or himself?
That’s what he was trying to get me to see. That’s why he wanted me to go home. Because I did need to think about this. I’d been ignoring some of Sophia’s most important advice. I hadn’t gone down every worst-case scenario.
What if things did work out between us? What if they were great for five solid years? What if we did get married and have babies and everything seemed manageable and then *boom* his CTE suddenly manifested in some devastating way? Being with him might be so hard on me that I lost myself too. Was I willing to risk that? Was I willing to endure years of heartache and pain watching someone I loved experience a debilitating chronic illness?
I might be falling in love with him, but love wasn’t the end all be all. It wasn’t some miracle cure. This wasn’t a movie or a romance novel where we could say the words “I love you” and then ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after. My love couldn’t “fix” Ben. I couldn’t “fix” Ben. Hell, I might not even be able to help him if his symptoms were worst-case scenario.
“You’re right,” I told him.
He wiped impatiently at his cheeks and didn’t meet my eyes. “I know.”
“I’m going to stay until your parents get back, at least.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding.
I hated this. I fucking hated this. I wanted to stay. I didn’t want to leave him. I didn’t want to lose him. If he was only trying to push me away for my own wellbeing, I would fight him more on this, but it was clear that he needed this break as much as I did. Ben had to come first right now. His mental health needed to be the most important thing.
But God, this hurt. My stomach was in knots. It felt like someone had reached into my chest and was trying to pull my heart out through my ribcage.
I struggled to push the worst of the pain down as I rounded the corner of the island and went to him, wrapping my arms around his waist. His own came up and gripped my shoulders, hugging me so hard it was almost painful.
An hour later, I pulled out of his driveway. I made it halfway up the hill before I was forced to stop on the side of the road, unable to hold myself together any longer. The steering wheel was cold against my forehead as I cried. Was this it? Was this how it ended?
Copyright © 2019 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.