She sat hunched over with a sour look on her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” she replied, forcing a meek smile. “I just don’t feel that well.”
“I’m sorry.” I glanced over my shoulder to ensure that we were alone, “I can still take you home tonight, right?”
“I don’t know,” she hesitated.
“You always say that. You then try and tell me that you’re going to walk home, only to eventually give in to me. Aren’t we past these games by now?”
She sighed, then after a moment conceded. “You can drive me home because I really don’t want to walk, but you’re not staying over tonight.”
“Oh, come on. Again, you always say that until we get to your place and then I always do. I haven’t heard any complaints about any of the other times I’ve done that these last few weeks. And besides, you shouldn’t be alone if you don’t feel well. I’ll take care of you. I’m sure I can think of something to make you feel better.” I gave her a wink, hoping my joke would brighten her mood. I failed; she simply shook her head.
“We can talk about it later, but right now all I want to do is finish cleaning up so I can go home.” With that, she pushed herself to her feet and walked past me without another word.
I finished my responsibilities, wondering what caused her sudden coldness. It had been a fun few weeks while we staved off boredom and the numbing temperature outside with the heat of passion and the excitement of our secret rendezvous. But, we began this relationship agreeing to keep it casual. Maybe it had run its course. I told myself I was fine with its conclusion. I wasn’t looking for anything serious, anyway.
I clocked out and found her already waiting for me by the exit. She gave me another weak smile but didn’t say a word as we walked to the car. I put the key in the ignition and turned it a notch, but stopped short of starting the engine. I wanted to know where we were heading before we set off.
It was cold. Our breath hung thick in the air and began to fog up the windows. Dull yellow light from the nearby street lamp mixed with the soft green glow of the car radio. Maybe it was the unfriendly nature of the air, but even though we could see other cars in the parking lot, we felt very alone. After a few uncomfortable moments she started.
“I’m really scared.”
Outside the car, the world was sleepy and silent. Inside, the air suddenly became sharp, causing my heart to jump and my senses to tingle. Taken aback, I took a moment to examine the woman beside me. She was still wearing her bulky work uniform. It required some imagination, and even then I could scarcely perceive the beautiful curves concealed underneath. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, fully exposing her pale face. She looked tired, a fatigue resulting from more than just a night’s work. I could tell from the shine in her eyes that she was on the verge of tears.
Confused by what I had done to cause this reaction, I said the only thing I could think of: “I’m sorry. What can I do?”
“Give me a hug,” she blurted. She was beginning to break down; tears began forcing themselves out in choking sobs. Awkwardly, I turned in my seat and reached out to comfort her. With her head buried into my shoulder, fully crying, she continued. “I’m in a lot of pain. All of my joints hurt, especially my knees. Some mornings I can’t even get out of bed.” She was beginning to talk faster as she approached hysterics. “The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with me. Some fear it could be cancer. And with how quickly this is all happening, they may not be able to diagnose me before…”
I squeezed her tighter and hushed her to silence, allowing her to cry her anxiety out on my shoulder. While I waited, I silently cursed myself for thinking that I was the cause of her frightened disposition.
I realized this was our first serious conversation and the freshness of our relationship made the whole situation all the more awkward. I was at a loss for words but I felt the need to say something.
“Everything will be all right,” I whispered.
The bitterness of the cold was being reflected in her shuddered breathing. We both knew I was simply breaking the silence. However, she desperately wanted to believe that everything was going to be all right and forced herself to accept it.
“You’re right,” she said, lifting her head and wiping her nose. “I’m sorry!” she cried with an ashamed laugh. “Look what I’ve done to your shoulder! I’m a mess. “
I shook my head. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about me. How can I make you feel better so we can go back to having fun with each other?”
“You can’t! And if that’s all you want then you’re out of luck. I can’t do that anymore.”
She sat back and crossed her arms. I sighed and looked into her tear-streaked face. I could see that despite the rims being red, her eyes were now hard, resolute. Even though we were in tight quarters, she suddenly felt far away. I didn’t like that feeling. Her show of strength was as beautiful as her hidden figure.
I shivered. The tension was starting to wear on me and I needed to ease it somehow. “I’m sorry. All I meant was that you are going through a really difficult time right now and you don’t have to go through it alone.” At the mention of being alone she flinched. “You are alone, aren’t you?”
Her head dropped. “My parents live in California. They’ve each flown here once but they obviously can’t keep doing that too often.”
“Why haven’t you told me you were dealing with this before?”
“This isn’t exactly romantic,” she nodded towards my shoulder. “And we’ve never really spent any time talking about personal stuff anyway. I didn’t think you wanted to know.”
“Look, I know the rules were for us to keep this simple and casual, but I don’t see how we can keep it that way anymore. Who else do you have to turn too?” While she studied my face, I continued. “I may not be much, but I can be of some small help. At the very least I could take your mind off things for a while. Make you laugh a little.”
She relaxed some. “You do make me laugh,” she conceded.
“You can lean on me, I’ll be your rock.” I chuckled timidly, hoping she would be willing to accept my silliness. Thankfully, she gave me a tired grin.
It was her turn to evaluate my strength. I didn’t know how I would measure up. I had spoken boldly, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any doubt in my heart. I surely didn’t feel as strong as I was acting.
She must not have felt that strong, either. “OK. But know I have nothing to give you in return. I just don’t have the strength or the energy to spend on you. And I’m sure I won’t treat you very well while I’m in pain. I’ll probably cry a lot more...a lot more.
She paused and took a deep breath. We fell silent for a few moments, hearing the soft sounds from the radio but not really listening. Finally she spoke.
“I need you to be either all the way in or all the way out. ”
“Fine,” I committed without hesitation. I scarcely knew the woman sitting next to me, nor did I fully comprehend what I had just pledged myself to. All I knew was that I didn’t want to lose her. When I was with her, I was different. I had confidence. Her inner strength gave me strength and I liked who I was with her.
“You deserve better,” she pressed.
“So do you,” I replied quickly. “I wasn’t looking for anything emotional in return when we started this. Why would I start now?”
“Yes, but you may not get what you want physically from me anymore. At least, not as much as you’ve had in the past. Or maybe you don’t want to touch me anymore.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why wouldn’t I? You’re not contagious. And even if you were, I wouldn’t care. No woman as sexy as you has ever let me touch them the way you let me touch you.” Clearly, she was past the point for humour and gave me quite the stern look. Before she could say anything I laughed and then reassured her. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
Drained and exhausted, she gave up any further protest and rested her head on my shoulder. We both fell silent and watched the crystals forming on the windshield. The windows were almost completely fogged over, making us feel even more isolated than when we started.
In that frosty light, it was hard to remember brighter days. Now, we faced a daunting future together. Having committed myself to her service, I was now scared, too. But at the same time, strangely proud and content.