Ridiculous. I know. But that’s what we each said and then we sat there–or stood, in my case–listening to each other breathe. Ricky tore himself away and shuffled some paperwork while pretending not to listen.
I tried to start. “How was dinner?”
“Um, fine, I guess. I couldn’t really eat.”
“Oh.” I wanted to ask why: Because you were worrying about me/us? Or so broken up over Jordan? Or some other reason? But I couldn’t quite find the right way to get into it without it potentially becoming my fault. Except… was it? Or wasn’t it? And did that matter?
Hm. I decided to go right after that instead of shying away from it. “Is it my fault?”
“That I had no appetite? No, dear one. I don’t think you can take the blame for that. Not directly anyway. And unlike your mother I won’t pin that sort of thing on you.”
My skin began to prickle when he said that. Unlike your mother. There was something going on there.
I tried to stay focused on him, though, and not distracted by Claire. Or by Ricky standing on the other side of the counter. “Are you all right?”
“I’m sure I’ll recover.” That wasn’t any more cryptic than he usually was. “How about you? Are you all right?”
“I miss you a lot and it’s honestly really hard not to fall into a paranoid funk when we’re this far apart.” I meant both physically and emotionally and I think that meaning came through. I saw Ricky flinch.
“I’m sorry I was so angry at you,” he said.
“I don’t think you can be sorry for having a feeling. A genuine feeling.”
“I can be sorry for how I handled it, though. Can you forgive me?”
“For yelling at me on the phone, sure. For whatever else you did, doesn’t that kind of depend on what you’ve done?” Ricky literally put his hands over his ears and almost ran into the back room through the doorway behind the desk. It slammed audibly.
I heard Ziggy snort. “Was that Ricky who answered the phone?”
“He is the one who works the phones here at night, yes.” The mercury was starting to rise again.
“I’ve been trying to call you for half an hour. You’ve been standing at the front desk talking to him all that time? You, who almost never talks to anyone for more than two minutes?”
Oh, jeez. “No, I’ve been doing laundry for a half hour and I came over to the front desk to get quarters for the dryer.”
“You do realize how completely suspicious that sounds, though, don’t you? I mean, can you hear that?”
I was on the defensive, and my head was starting to throb. “Are you accusing me of something?”
“No, I’m not accusing you of anything, but I just want you to see how if I were paranoid, how really circumstantial and fishy it would look from my point of view. Daron, take a breath.”
Despite my not wanting to, I did. Take a breath, I mean. “Yes, I know how suspicious it looks. That’s why I unplugged the phone last night and hid in my room. I knew damn well that contact would be trouble and so I limited it. I’m so determined to limit it that–”
He cut in with a kind of Sherlock-Holmes-explaining tone that I associated with Bart. “Why did you think it would be trouble? That seems to indicate that you think I don’t trust you… or that you think I can’t actually trust you.”
Well, he was half-right I suppose. I didn’t trust myself and look where it got me. But that’s not what I said.
“Do you trust me, Ziggy? Do you actually trust me?” Before he could answer, I barreled on, “Because I trust you. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I want you to justify that trust. I want you to be as good as your promises.”
He was silent for a moment. Through the phone I couldn’t tell if I had moved him or derailed him, or if he was just furiously trying to think of the next thing to say. Eventually he came out with, “I trust your heart. I don’t always trust your head, which as we know can be kind of messed up sometimes. You said it yourself. Paranoid funk.”
“Stay with me here, dear one. So if I trust you, then I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that just because you were quote-unquote ‘caught’ in a suspicious circumstance, that that circumstance actually carried any weight, right?”
“Right.” Right? “Unless you’re going to count the fact that I even acknowledged that there was a temptation or a potential for trouble there in the first place against me.”
“Of course I’m not,” he said. “So let me ask you again, do you trust me?”
Oh. Now I saw how he had led me in a complete circle. “So if I trust you, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about you, either, is that what you’re saying?”
“Fine.” Spit it out, Daron. “But did you sleep with Sarah?”
“Are you going to hold the temptation itself against me?”
Ah, now it made sense. Another layer deeper. I think. “No. I certainly can’t hold it against you without being a big hypocrite.”
“Some would say hypocrisy is a milder crime than dishonesty.”
“Hypocrisy is just another form of dishonesty.” I saw the door to the back room crack open and then shut again. Poor Ricky was trying to figure out if it was safe to come out yet. “Were you tempted to sleep with Sarah?”
“I was. She was distraught and angry and all kinds of fucked up, and she shouldn’t have been left alone. So I brought her back to the apartment. I wasn’t fit to be left alone, either, honestly.” His throat was growing tighter as he spoke, his voice constricting in a way that made me swallow in empathy. “God knows I’ve used sex as a substitute for companionship plenty of times. That’s how I know what a poor substitute it is. Sex is easy to get. Companionship isn’t.”
I looked at the ring on my finger.
He finished with: “She needed someone and I needed someone. We made it through. I slept next to her, love. And that’s all.”
I should have felt relieved to hear that, but I was wound too tight. I really should have told him to call me at the room and I’d pick up over there, but after not speaking to him for two days I couldn’t make myself let go of the phone. My elbows hurt as I leaned against the countertop, my head and the phone cradled in my hands, but I couldn’t make myself move. I did make myself speak. “I’m sorry.”
My apology seemed to push him over the edge. “You were supposed to be there!” All the anger he’d been holding back came hotly through the receiver. “What the fuck am I supposed to think about our commitment to each other if you pick the woman who neglected you all your life over me?”
“Whoa, waitasec, I was picking her over Jordan–”
“So you said. The living over the dead. Well, hello, I’m the living!”
“Hang on a second–”
“Don’t fucking tell me it never occurred to you that going to funerals with me would be one of your duties as the other half of a couple.”
Oh shit. It was like he had reached through the phone and put a deathgrip on my windpipe. I could barely breathe. “N-no. It hadn’t–!”
My turn to snap. “Don’t you ‘Daron’ me! You never said you expected me to! You never said ‘Daron do it for meeeeee!’”
“I shouldn’t have to!”
“Yes, you should! We’ve been over this, Ziggy! When you try to get me to do what you want by telling me it’s for my own good or some other shit, it doesn’t work, but if you just tell me what you want at least then we can talk about it instead of ending up a thousand miles apart!”
Silence. Well, maybe some heavy breathing. And a sniff.
“Look. I know you think you can read my mind. Maybe sometimes you can. But I can’t read yours. This commitment we’ve made… I did it with no assumptions. I mean, fuck, I didn’t even assume it meant monogamy, which would be most people’s first assumption.”
His voice was small and tight. “That’s true.”
“And, no, I didn’t assume it meant going to corporate Christmas parties or weddings or funerals together.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just finding it hard to believe.”
“Are you? You know there’s always going to be a negotiation around us being seen in public together, right? Barrett practically made me promise him there would be.”
“When? When did that happen?”
“In California about a million years ago.” So I was exaggerating slightly. It was only because of how far we’d come since then.
“Oh. Maybe I do remember that. He didn’t say it in so many words, but…”
“But he said he accepted us having a relationship as something he’d have to manage. You know what I’ve assumed that meant? That if he says it would be bad for your career for us to be seen crying on each other at a funeral, then one of us would stay home.”
He gasped. “That is fucked up.”
“Yes, it is.”
“But, wait. Are you saying you’d put my career ahead of… our relationship?”
“Ziggy. I know for a fact you put your career ahead of our relationship once and–let me finish!–And that’s why I know you’d consider very, very carefully before you’d do it again. But I also know you’re capable of going that direction.”
“You sound horribly disappointed in me.”
“No, I don’t. I’m being realistic. If there’s any disappointment that’s you projecting.”
“Jeezus, Daron, you sound like me, now.”
“I learned from the best. Listen to me. If I thought it would be good for our relationship to put your career ahead of our relationship, I would do it. Does that make sense?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“Now you sound like me.”
“Ha, I know. But what’s your point.”
“My point is…” I took a breath trying to make sure my momentum actually was carrying me to a landing. “My point is that us deciding not to, for example, go to one funeral together, is not the same as ‘putting our relationship second.’ And that’s true whether it’s Barrett who tells us we should lay low or if there’s some other competing issue.” Like, oh, my cancerous mother, but I didn’t say that out loud.
There was a long silence, then. Ricky peeked out, saw me glare at him, and ducked back inside again.
And then Ziggy said, “Us deciding to.”
“You said ‘us deciding’ to skip doing something together isn’t the same as putting our relationship second.”
I thought back over the echo of my words in my ears. “Yeah.”
“Then I know what we did wrong.”
“What did we do wrong?”
“You decided unilaterally you weren’t going. You’d made up your mind before I even asked you about going. And then you were angry that I didn’t quote-unquote ‘read your mind’–that I didn’t automatically know that you’d set yourself on not budging from Claire’s side for half a minute!”
“I wasn’t angry! I was just… dismayed. That we were having a disconnect.” Right?
“Whatever.” He sounded sullen.
“You said you figured out what ‘we’ did wrong. Sounds like you’re pinning the blame squarely on me.”
His voice held a sarcastic edge. “Oh, but you just said the part that was my fault. I didn’t insist loudly enough that it be a couple’s decision, not yours alone.”
“That is not what I meant! If you’d told me what you were really feeling, things might have been different.”
“Or maybe they wouldn’t’ve. You were so adamant that the obvious thing was that you wouldn’t leave Claire’s side and you were insulted that I’d suggest otherwise.”
Shit. That did sound kind of like what I had thought. I was hurt that he hadn’t known how I felt, whether I’d made those feelings clear or not. Maybe I hadn’t. Had he disregarded my feelings? That’s what it had felt like, when actually maybe I had just been wishing he had understood automatically?
Meanwhile, he’d been wishing that I understood the whole couples supporting each other thing automatically. “We did it to each other.”
“I was gutted you didn’t understand my feelings about why I belonged here. You were gutted I didn’t understand your feelings about why I belonged at your side.”
He sounded frustrated. “Well,” he snarked. “At least we’re even.”
“You sound very satisfied with the outcome.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. This is my worst fear.”
“I thought your worst fear was that I’d rip you apart.”
“No. My worst fear is that we’d rip each other apart. That, you know, this whole relationship thing is a big delusion that’s just going to tear us both to pieces until there’s nothing left.”
“You really think that’s where we’re headed.”
“No! I generally don’t think the worst case scenario is the most likely scenario. I mean, except when I’m at my most paranoid and deluded.”
“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “I’m going to say something now that I hope is going to make sense now and later. When it comes to paranoia and delusions, can I just say, I don’t think your family is exactly the most healthy when it comes to an environment that is free of those things?”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’ve been trying to avoid saying this because she’s going to use it against me, but to put it in really simple terms…” He sighed. “Daron. I think your mother is making you crazy.”
“Our relationship disconnects are not Claire’s fault.”
“I’m not blaming her, I’m just saying–”
“What, that I should leave her to die?” Wow. That sounded like such a drama queen thing to say, even to my own ears. I’d said something like it when we were arguing about going to New York, too. Why didn’t he get it? “Okay, I own it, it’s my fault for being new to a committed partnership and not defaulting to talking about us before talking about myself, is that it? Fine. We should always talk about us, between us, on anything that is about us. But that’s us. Leave my mother out of it.”
“You don’t want me helping you make decisions about your mother?”
“No.” I hadn’t really thought about it, but I could sense that Claire wouldn’t want him being involved in them, either.
“I mean, it sounds like maybe you don’t want me there at all.”
I tried to protest but it didn’t come out more than a sputter.
His tone was icy. “A little bird told me you found a place to live.”
I got my tongue in gear. “Yeah. A vacation rental but it’s not vacation season. It’s closer to the medical place.” I was not being eloquent. It’s hard to talk when you feel like you’re in deep shit.
“You didn’t even ask me about it. You couldn’t wait a day to even ask my opinion. It really doesn’t sound to me like you thought of this being a place where you and I would live with your mother. Now, does it?”
Shit. He was really right this time. Where you live is really an “us” question. I mean, look at all the negotiation we did around moving in together in Boston, even though that would be temporary. Which was why it sounded so weak when I said, “This is just temporary.”
“And I did it to get away from…” I didn’t say Ricky’s name in case he could hear right through the door. “…the motel as soon as possible.”
“To put a slightly less large dent in Remo’s multi-million-dollar pocketbook. Great reason to just forget entirely about me,” he said in a scathing voice.
Fuck it. Ziggy’s feelings were definitely more important than Ricky’s. “I was in a hurry to get us out of here because I felt it was better for our relationship.”
“Because that dishy clerk was such a threat? Or because you thought I did something with Sarah that was the end of us and so you already had a foot out the door? None of these things make it sound like you feel very solid about us right now.”
He was right. Once again, he was right. I couldn’t argue with that. A few weeks ago I’d felt we were rock solid. Every hiccup we’d had since he’d pulled me off that roof in Brazil had only ultimately drawn us closer together. But this?
“It feels like you’re driving me away, Daron.”
I forced some words to come out. “I don’t… I don’t mean to be.”
“But you are.” I heard him draw another long breath. “You know, I’d been fantasizing that maybe if we didn’t manage to connect by phone, maybe I was going to sneak off to the airport in an hour or two, get on an early morning flight, pay for a limo, and sneak into the room while you and Claire were at lunch. And then when she went off for her nap and you came back to the room, I’d be waiting for you in bed. You’d find me there covered in rose petals and all the I’m sorrys could come after all the I missed yous.”
I had started to cry during his soliloquy.
It sounded like he was crying, too, but somehow he kept his voice together. “But what would have happened instead is I would’ve put my key in the door and opened it on an empty room, to find you’d literally left me behind.”
I wanted to insist that I would have left the address for him on his voice mail, that I would have come to pick him up, but these little details didn’t have the power to counteract his vision. “I’m not leaving you.”
“But it feels like you already did, dear one. It feels like you already did.”
I made a last ditch attempt. “You’ll like the place. It’s rustic but charming.” I knew it was weak.
He gave me no quarter. “You go on. Have some quality time with dear old mom. Call me when you come to your senses.”
“Ziggy–” But I didn’t get to say more because he had hung up.
Yeah, that was bad. Meanwhile, in the Fedex envelope were court papers. I didn’t know which fight would be worse. Like it or not, I was going to find out.
(Folks, I think that may be the end of Book 12, with Book 13 starting on Tuesday! Orrrr possibly on Saturday if $40 + fees lands in the tip jar by then. There are two reasons to make a break here even though I said a while back that I thought book 12 would be the last. The first is that we’re at 150,000 words in book 12, which is a lot. The second is there’s quite a bit to go to wrap up this arc of story. Checking my notes, I think we *now* have basically a book’s worth to go. The silver lining on the fact that the book distribution deal with Ever After went up in smoke is that I can do 13 books instead of 12 because I’m back in charge! Yeah, if you missed that news earlier this month, the deal is off. Ever After is going on autopilot and cancelling all books not already in distribution, so my hoped-for new bookstore editions of DGC are not coming out after all. It’s disappointing news, but not terribly surprising given the way the book business keeps changing. My plan is to do the new editions myself in 2019-2020 and plan a new Kickstarter, because it’s been quite a while since our last DGC one. More on that in the New Year. Thank you for sticking with me and Daron! -ctan)
(Had to skip forward a bit in time to get to the RHCP version of this classic Ohio Players song, but it fits the chapter so well, don’tcha think? OK, maybe it’s a bit of an upbeat song for a downer of a chapter but the theme is right on target. -daron)