Extract from Without Flinching pages 193-200

“I decided I want to know more. If I’m to love you, be close to you…” she paused briefly before saying her next words. She looked vulnerable, naked in her helplessness and resolve. “… like I want to” at last came the words, almost inaudible. She searched his eyes. He held her gaze, softly cutting through him. He never once felt this intimate with Alice. His heart ached, his throat suddenly narrowed. No time had elapsed, and then she went on, sounding more confident. “If I’m to love you and be your friend, I want to know everything, or it won’t count.”

Paul knew he had to say something. But he suddenly felt spent, numb, and oddly bitter. How can she know, how could she ever understand?

“I may not be able to understand,” she almost read his mind. “I want to try.”

[Continuing from novel’s home page:]

Paul lowered his eyes and nodded again. When he looked up at her, incredulous, her eyes were steady, looking at him. She didn’t run away from him. He saw her hands were on the table. Slowly, looking at her eyes all the while, he took his hand and placed it over hers, squeezing ever so slightly, acknowledging the distance, recognizing the closeness. She didn’t recoil, but she pulled her hand away. Her effort in doing so was noticeable.

“Not yet, Paul,” she said. “I trust you enough to be here,” she continued, reassuring him, or perhaps herself. He wasn’t sure. “I’m here,” she repeated. “But I need to talk with you some more.” She got up, walked over to the dresser, took the wallet and the carefully folded newspaper, and brought them over to the table.

“When I was last here, you showed me these items, and told me you were the one to have done this act.” She was attempting to sound dispassionate, even. But he already knew her enough to know she was scared. “We exchanged some letters in the last several months. I know enough to overcome my fear, my mistrust.” She thought of her lunch with Janet. Was she really ready to be here? “Maybe I’m a fool, too naïve, I don’t know…” She laughed, a short, nervous laughter.

“Whatever I know or don’t know, I want to be here and near you as you talk about your past. It’s good we exchanged all these letters, but now it’s different. I want to see you, feel what you’re saying, really be here, with you.” She was saying these last words with clarity, determination, her energy was back at her disposal, and she went on rapidly, pointing to the objects now resting on the table. “I want to start from something I don’t completely understand… so, how about you tell me why you have these on your dresser?”

“You’re relentless,” he said, smiling but mildly annoyed with her. Her hands were back in her lap, hidden by the table. He wanted her to let him hold her hand, and wondered how he would ever have the nerve to touch her again. Then he sighed. He had to talk, he knew it, but he still didn’t know how. He had never before talked to anyone about the ritual, about anything that mattered.

“This priest told me I had to look at what I had done without flinching, without averting my gaze, before I could be forgiven,” he started a little distant, but the floodgate was opening as he continued. “I took him literally. Every morning I look at these objects. Sometimes I focus on the wallet, sometimes the article, sometimes the picture in the newspaper. But what’s important to me is never to miss a day.” He paused to look at her briefly. She was looking at him closely, herself unflinching. “Every morning for almost 18 years now,” he added, with emphasis. He knew the exact count of days, but it was too raw to tell her that. “I still flinch, more often than I like to admit to myself, maybe most of the time. I think about something else. I know I look away when it gets painful. But there have been some times when I didn’t. I know what he means.” He looked at her some more, and she was still there, so he continued. His voice was a little shy. “There is some tenderness there, somehow, in fleeting moments, that takes me by surprise. Not always.”

The words disappeared in the wave of cynicism that approached him. Yes, he still flinched a lot. Loretta looked interested. She didn’t recoil when he touched her. He remembered that. And she said she wanted to understand. “Loretta, is there any use in going on? Can you ever trust me enough?”

She never stopped looking at him while he was talking. His face was strained, like he was lifting many more pounds than his muscles could tolerate. And she also saw the longing, unmistakable. It was most pronounced in his eyes. They looked at her, independently of any words he was saying. “Please,” they said to her, “please love me. Please don’t leave again. Please help me.” She stood up and walked over to where he was sitting. Then she stood behind him, and slowly put her hands on his shoulders, which immediately relaxed under the weight of her hands. She felt inexplicable joy in comforting this man.

“I don’t know Paul. I can’t know. We can’t know. I want to try. Tell me, why are you in this squalid apartment? Are you punishing yourself? Why so many years without talking to anyone? Why do you keep doing the same thing, day after day, for so many years? How will you know when to stop?” Now she was nervous. Her mother’s voice was ringing in her ears, telling her not to pry on people’s privacy.

Paul resisted the urge to get up and hug her.

“Please sit down,” he said reluctantly, knowing the gentle hands on his shoulders would be taken away. “I want to see you when I speak.”

She lifted her hands, like she wanted them to stay there, like a part of her was still there. He felt her touch for minutes afterwards. She walked back to her chair, and sat down. Then she looked at him again, expectantly, patiently. He felt suddenly shy.

“Would you like some tea?” he said abruptly. He wasn’t thirsty.

“No, Paul,” she said softly, “I just want to hear your story. Please talk to me.”

“I saw the priest the morning after killing her. I wandered over to his church, unconscious. I don’t know how I got there. For months afterwards I saw no point to living. I was angry with him. I wanted him to punish me. He told me that punishment was too easy, and I didn’t get it at first, but now I know. What he asked me to do was much harder than punishment, and I hated him for making me do it. But I also knew I had nothing. No friends, no job, no respect for myself. What I did have was lots of time if I wasn’t going to kill myself, years and years ahead of me to learn to see.”

“I had no one to talk with. I wanted to tell someone, but I couldn’t even tell the priest. I didn’t want to go back to prison.”

It came out of his mouth faster than he could stop it. Oh, shit, he thought. The inevitable question followed suit.

“Prison,” she said, taken aback, “what were you in prison for?” Her body, which had relaxed, contracted away from him.

This was harder than telling her about Nancy. This was different. Alice was his partner, and they had a child together. How much would she tolerate without running away?

“I hit the woman I was living with, pretty bad, broke her ribs.”

Loretta was fighting heroically inside herself. They looked at each other. Again, there was no need for words. He knew she was frantically trying to digest a new piece, and what he laid on her was bigger than she had anticipated. She knew he was being utterly honest, and respected him for taking the risk. There was no time to check how scared she was, because he went on.

“I don’t trust myself either,” he finally said, responding to her unspoken wonderings. His eyes welled up with tears. “That’s why I haven’t pursued you,” he continued. “I’ve wanted you since the first day I saw you in the office. I tried to make it go away. I can’t.”

“I’ve been so terrified of doing it again… or something else horrible… that I’ve stayed away from people. For about 10 years I didn’t talk to anyone about anything. Slowly, I started coming back. So slowly, that sometimes it looked like nothing was happening.

“You know,” he almost chuckled, “it’s like I had put myself in solitary confinement anyway. I worked nights cleaning. I slept much of the day, I worked out at the gym. I did my private ritual. That was it.”

“What was it like?” she finally asked, “I can’t imagine living like that. I would go crazy. I’m so used to having people to talk to.”

Her laughter was ringing in his ears again, he flashed on her ease and comfort in the office, her friendly manner. Yes, she was different.

“I was always quiet. Even as a child. I was serious, never played much with other kids. I learned not to talk early enough. It was one thing I could do to keep my old man from hurting me.” His voice broke. He remembered suddenly the day he came home from school when he was only 7. His only friend Jimmy made fun of him in front of the other kids. He never spoke to him again. He was really hurting. It must have shown on his face.

“What’s the matter with you, Paul,” his stepfather’s voice was not particularly inviting, but he was so lonely, so desperate. So he told him. His stepfather yelled at him for not standing up to the kids, mocked him for not being tough, for being like a girl. He never again told him anything.

He looked up at Loretta. She looked more relaxed. “I’m such a mess,” he said. It eased the tension.

Loretta smiled at him. She was a good listener. Her friends, people in the office, her family, they all came to her to talk about their problems. But this was different. She couldn’t just tell him everything would be OK.

“This is very difficult, you know, it’s hard for me, too, and I can’t imagine how hard it would be for you. But I want you to keep going. This is important.”

“I don’t really know,” he started answering the question she never finished. His memories were still vivid of those days with Alice. He was watching Loretta closely with every word. “I still remember the day she told me she was pregnant. She didn’t want to have an abortion, no matter how much I tried to convince her. It was like she was possessed or something. She just wouldn’t budge…”

“Please stop now,” Loretta interrupted him. Her face became slightly green, like she was about to vomit. Was this time to tell him about her abortion, about the marriage that didn’t survive the loss? She decided against it, for now. She wasn’t sure it was the right decision, though. She smiled furtively. “You can go on,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it right now, really,” she continued. But she wasn’t convincing.

“What happened?” he didn’t fall for her words. Her eyes welled up. There was no reason to hide it from him. “I had an abortion myself,” she said simply. “I just remembered when you said it. I’m sorry. I asked you to talk about yourself, and then I got carried away into my own past. Please continue.” She opened her purse and took out a tissue. She wiped her eyes out, and looked up at him. She smiled again, a little more solidly.

“I think you’re right,” his own voice sounded somewhat unfamiliar to him. Was he nervous? “This is probably not the moment to talk about it.” She nodded, still a little teary, gesturing him to continue.

“Well, what can I say… I really didn’t want that child… I was so not ready for a life with her. I was young, I had started working only a couple of years before, I really needed to have the time to do that for a while. But I also remembered my dad had left my mother when I was really young, and I just couldn’t do it to her. And so we moved in together. And then we never talked about it. No one ever told me I could talk with anyone about such things. I think if I tried I wouldn’t know what to say. It was a done deal, so what was there to say?” He paused. “So, one day it just got to me when she was complaining so much. I know now what she was complaining about. But at the time I just couldn’t take it. I just had to make her shut up.” He remembered his recent visit to Alice. “I just saw her for the first time in the last couple of months,” he continued. “After you came here, I suddenly had to see her. I wanted to straighten things out.” He paused again. “I can’t even begin to imagine what she has been through,” he went on, word after word, looking at her face. His throat was choking. He wanted to hear something from Loretta. “Talk to me, please,” he was trailing off now. “I need to hear something from you.”

It was her turn to lower her eyes. She thought of all he had said so far. But she didn’t feel like running away any more, despite what she was hearing.

“I think like you said that you hit her because you never talked with her, or with anyone, about what was going on.” She paused to see his reaction. He nodded again. “But I’m seeing something else here, too.” She paused to check him out. He looked peaceful enough. She decided to continue. “I think for all these years you tried to do the same thing to fix the problem that created it in the first place. Don’t you think?”

“I think you’re right,” he uttered those words slowly, like each of them meant something profound. All this was a new thought. He had never seen this before. He felt quiet inside, peaceful, and immensely sad. “Yes, you’re absolutely right,” he repeated, excited about the discovery. “How could I’ve been so blind?” He almost laughed, but it was painful. “Yes, totally… when I saw all this anger and violence in me, all I could do was to back off, talk even less. But that’s what kept me from changing, too. I mean, you know, I did change. I changed a lot. But something didn’t. You know what I mean, right?” He turned to her for help.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I think we’re both saying that you have to learn to be with people, and to say what’s going on.” She paused again. “But you like talking with me, right?” Loretta half-asked, half-said. Her tone was flirtatious, playful. He smiled at her, and nodded vigorously. “Yes, I like talking with you. I was really scared about it before you came, and now I feel so good, so happy!” The church bell rang. It was midnight, time for magic mystery, departure. “This was enough for me for one day. I’m drained and light, happy. How about you?”

Loretta listened to her thoughts for a moment. She wanted to be real. “I need more,” she sighed, “much more. But this was good. I’ve got just a little more of a picture. You know, I haven’t told anyone except one friend about you. And friends have asked me, they could see something was going on. And even that friend, she has been taxed to the max with not hearing any details about you. I didn’t know what to say. I’m in love with an ex-murderer didn’t sound very promising as a start.” She started laughing, somewhat painfully. “Now I can tell her he’s a batterer, too.” The pain was bigger than she knew. She looked at him, surprised by the anguish. “I have to find trust in my heart to match my love. It’s not there yet. But I feel good about what we did today.”

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