For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Mary Terrani challenged me with "Sometimes you have to let go of the one you love to find out if there is really something there" and I challenged Diane with "As children, your world is yours. That day [his father's death] taught me that it's really not your world. Somebody else is in control-fate, God, whatever it is. It is not your show. And the show can be brutal. -Tim Allen".
"Ray?," she said. She always spoke softly, as if nothing she said was worth listening to.
Emmeline was at the other end of my couch, reading "Bleak House" again. Her precise dancer's feet were pulled up against her, her toes peeking out under the hem of her skirt. The polish was chipped and uneven. She had marked her place in the worn paperback and was looking at me over the top of it. Her eyes were engaging. I never wanted to stop looking at them.
I felt a sudden unease. I was grading papers, half listening to the broadcast of a Mariners game that I had turned down in deference to her reading. She had joined me for dinner, but had only picked at her food, muttering noncommittal replies to my questions. Something was up.
"I need to ask you something."
Famous last words, I thought.
"Something's been bothering me." You can say that again, I thought.
"No, not Kate. Well, not really Kate. Kate's part of it, but Kate's part of everything. I still haven't made my peace with it, but I'm tired of fighting it." That reminded me of the old saying, "When they say it's not about the money, it's about the money."
"OK. What is it, Em?"
"You know I love you."
"Yes. And I love you, too."
"Yes, you do. After Wendy, you didn't have anybody before me, did you?"
"No, I didn't. You know this. What are you trying to say, Em?"
She looked down, focusing on her knees under the thin fabric of the skirt. She set the paperback down and wrapped her hands around her ankles.
"I'm scared, Ray. I'm scared that you're in love with being in love, instead of being in love with me. I love Kate, you know that. But I'm scared you love her more than you love anyone, because she's your last tie to Wendy. And damn it, I'm scared that I will always be second fiddle to the memories of someone who died."
I could hear the tears on the edge of her voice.
"Ray, you're it for me. I knew it from the moment you started talking to me about pens and paper, that very first day. I have not regretted a moment of time I have spent with you. I don't have a shadow of a doubt that I want to spend the rest of my life with you in one form or another."
"Neither do-," I began.
"Shut up," she said quickly. "Just shut up. You do. You do have doubts, and you know it. You can't commit to me. You can't. Not because you don't care about me, and not because you're a bad person. You can't commit because you already committed, in your heart, and she's gone, and I can't compete with a ghost."
She stood up, tears making tracks down the red blooms on her cheeks. She slid her bare feet into black flats that were waiting obediently on the floor.
"You've got to think about this, Ray. You have to think about whether you're ready to give yourself, all of yourself, to me. You have to think about what I mean to you. You have to decide what it is you want."
She picked up her book and started towards the door. I stood up.
"I won't be second place, Raymond. I won't. I'm ready to give myself to you. But I have to get something in return: all of you. I want you to take a break from me. I want you to really think about things. If we're ready, if this is real, we'll be stronger afterwards. If you think about it and you're not ready, I will accept that. But you need to make up your mind, because if I'm going to have a future with you, I need to know that I'm the only one."
She was at my door. I couldn't talk, but it didn't matter because I didn't know what to say.
"When I'm ready to talk about this again, I'll call you."
She opened the door and left. The breeze from the hallway ruffled her skirt softly, and then the door shut. I was alone. I turned back to the spot where she was sitting, the cushions still faintly indented with her shape. I knew if I leaned down close, I could probably smell her sweat on the fabric. I didn't.