“I think you should go home,” Ben says after his parents leave.
I blank my face and do my best to shove down the emotions his words provoke. We’re standing on opposite sides of the kitchen island. I lean my hips forward against it as I try to logically process what he just said, my hands on the massive slab of butcher block we nearly broke our backs installing ourselves. Beneath my fingers, the wood feels as smooth as butter. I oiled it a few days after the installation, rubbing the food-grade mineral oil onto its surface with painstaking care while Ben started on the herringbone tile that acts as the kitchen backsplash. I wanted this countertop to be perfect. I wanted him to look on the job I did with pride, see my use, and decide to let me hang around just a little while longer.
Now he’s pushing me away.
“Did I do something wrong?” I ask, my voice soft.
“No,” he tells 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 says, motioning between us with a big hand, “this is starting to feel unhealthy.”
Calm. Stay calm. “How so?”
His eyebrows draw together as he frowns at me, shading those beautiful green orbs. A spill of hair falls forward as he leans 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,” I tell him.
He barrels on as if I hadn’t spoken. “And now, you’ve dropped literally 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 actively hurting you, at least financially.”
I dig 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 to?”
Across from me, his frown deepens.
I take a deep breath before responding. Sofia told me he might do something like this, try to end things between us because he either can’t handle anything romantic right now, or because he’s trying to “save me” from him. If this is motivated by the former, there’s little I can do but respect his wishes, if it’s 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, Ben.” I love you, I want to say instead, but it’s clear he’s not in a place to hear that. “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 have to pause for a moment to get my tone back under control. Anger was starting to seep into it, and that will do nothing to help us right now. Especially since it’s not even him I’m angry at. It’s myself. He says he hasn’t been treating me fairly? Well, I haven’t been treating him right either. I’ve been hiding things. Tamping down on any negative emotion around him because I so wanted to be this bright, shiny happy part of his life to balance out all the bullshit he has to deal with simply by being famous and outspoken about things that matter.
“Winters are hard for me, Ben,” I tell him. “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.”
Ben looks a little surprised. “I’m sorry Ella. I didn’t know.” His frown slowly creeps back. “Doesn’t that prove my point about how one-sided this relationship has been? How much I’ve been taking advantage of you?”
I shake my head. “Not really. All it proves is that I’m as complicit in this as you are.”
“What?” he deadpans.
“I didn’t tell you any of this because I was…” I run 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 hardens. “I’m a grown ass man, Ella.”
“I know you are. I’m sorry for what I did.” My laugh is a bitter thing. “Trust me. 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 crosses his heavy arms over his chest as he meets my eyes, his tone turning patient. “Just because our problems are different, doesn’t mean yours don’t matter,” he tells me.
“I know that now,” I answer. “Sofia has helped me to see that. What you need to see is that this imbalance between us isn’t entirely your fault.”
Ben opens his mouth to respond, but I just wash over him with my words, having held so much in for so long that I can’t seem to shut the floodgates now that they’ve 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 a way that makes it really hard for me to be around her a lot, even when she’s medicated. That might be shitty for me to say, but it’s the truth. I stress the fuck out for the entire month of January when Jacob is in Somalia. It is so dangerous over there, and he’s already had several close calls in the past. When he gets home, he and my dad are flat out at the practice with flu season. Sofia is flat out at hers, too. Seasonal depression is really common up here, and so is addiction, both of which seem to worsen 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 straightens up and scrubs his hands over his face. “Is that supposed to help? You telling me all of this now?” he asks when he pulls them away. “Because it only makes me feel worse for not knowing any of it.”
“And that’s my fault,” I tell him. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have known you could handle it.”
He stares at me a moment before responding. “I’m sorry too. For not asking.”
We fall quiet. I stare across the island at him, taking in his expression, noting the way he still seems to be fighting some sort of battle with himself.
“But you still want me to go home,” I say.
My heart starts to break a little.
“Why?” I force myself to ask.
“Because I’m afraid that if you stay, I’ll use you as a crutch,” he tells me. “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 force myself to say.
“And I want you to go because I think you need time to process this too,” he adds. “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.”
In response to this, I turn on my heel and march out of the kitchen door.
“Where are you going?” he calls after me.
“To get my e-reader!” I yell back at him.
I peek in on the puppies to see them passed out together in their dog bed. Then I head upstairs, grab my device, and return to the kitchen. On the way, I pull up my library of e-books.
“Here,” I say, shoving it across the counter toward him.
“What is this?” he asks.
“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 answer. “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.”
“Planning is all well and good,” he tells me, pushing the e-reader away and looking back up to meet my eyes with a kind of steely determination that terrifies me. “But it might do nothing to prepare you for the reality.”
“I know that,” I say.
“Do you?” he asks, voice rising. “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 answer, having to work to keep my voice calm.
“I outweigh you by a hundred pounds, Ella!” he shouts. He’s trying to scare me. Push me away. It won’t work.
I plant my fists on the countertop and lean forward, feeling almost desperate now. “Then I’ll fight dirty.”
His expression is full of disbelief. “You’re too nice to fight dirty.”
“No, I’m not,” I tell 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 demand. “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 grips the edge of the counter and leans back again, head down, breathing deeply. “Don’t you understand, Ella?” he asks, 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 straightens up and pounds 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…” his voice gets soft, the tears spilling down his cheeks “that I don’t recognize.”
I stand there and stare at him, suddenly so sad that I can’t even cry. So stunned that I have nothing to say in response. Because he’s right. He’s absolutely right. I’m willing to admit now that I’ve been overly optimistic. In my planning, Ben’s symptoms are manageable. They manifest slowly enough that we have time to recognize them and react.
What if…what if they’re not? What if they don’t? What if he’s fine one day, and then the next day he has trouble remembering my name? What if I hear a noise, walk around a corner, and discover him on the floor, in the throes of a seizure? What if he gets mean? Really mean? Or he tries to hurt me, or his parents…or himself?
That’s what he’s trying to get me to see. That’s why he wants me to go home. Because I do need to think about this. I’ve been ignoring some of Sophia’s most important advice. Since finding out about his diagnosis, I haven’t gone down the rabbit hole of worst-case scenario and followed it to the very end. Being with him might be so hard on me that I lose myself too. Am I willing to risk that? Am I willing to risk the potential years of heartache and pain of watching someone I love experience a debilitating chronic illness?
What if things do work out between us? What if they’re great for five solid years. What if we get married and have babies and everything seems manageable and then *boom* his CTE suddenly manifests in some devastating way?
I love him, yes, but love isn’t the end all be all. It’s not some miracle cure. This isn’t a movie or a romance novel where we can say the words and then ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after. My love can’t “fix” Ben. I can’t “fix” Ben. Hell, I might not even be able to help him much if his symptoms are worst-case scenario.
“You’re right,” I tell him.
He wipes impatiently at his cheeks and doesn’t meet my eyes. “I know.”
“I’m going to stay until your parents get back, at least.”
“Okay,” he says, nodding.
I hate this. I fucking hate this. I want to stay. I don’t want to leave him. I don’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’s clear to me that he needs this break as much as I do. Ben has to come first right now. His mental health needs to be the most important thing.
But God, this hurts. My stomach is in knots. It feels like someone reached into my chest and is trying to pull my heart out through my ribcage.
I try to push the worst of the pain down as I round the corner of the island and go to him, wrapping my arms around his waist. His own come up and grip my shoulders, hugging me so close its almost painful.
An hour later, I pull out of his driveway. I get halfway up the hill and have to stop on the side of the road, unable to hold myself together any longer. The steering wheel is cold against my forehead as I sob.
Is this it? Is this how it ends?
I hope not. But right now, I can’t be sure.
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.