Standing there in under the bright overhead lighting in the large open hallway of Jason’s home, Christina heard her voice—hoarse with unshed tears, tight with the knot of knowledge of what would come next, tell Jason everything she knew would end things between them:
“…I was young and stupid and he said everything I wanted to hear. Not that, I knew what I was doing. I did. He had a wife, children—”
Her mouth shook so hard over the words she had to stop frequently and repeat herself. For his part, Jason didn’t interrupt her, but his eyes showed his frank shock and discomfort as she continued:
“It went on for a while. Too long. Right there under everyone’s nose. Until, until one night at my parent’s home…”
Her hands fluttered around her body, their movements growing more and more agitated as the story spilled out into the open, her sobs growing sporadically as she reached the conclusion:
“My parents kicked me out. They, they told me I was no daughter of theirs and…and you know what, that’s not even the worst part. I was okay with that. At first. I thought they’d come around once Bill and I showed them how serious we were…”
And on and on she talked, the story bubbling, rambling out of her at odds and ends until she’d finally run out of story to share.
“So I moved here, got a job with your dad’s company and,” she shrugged, “well, you know everything else.” With bravado she was far from feeling, Christina brought her eyes back up to Jason’s face as she waited, her knees trembling, for him to speak.
Silence met the end of her story. Jason’s nostrils were flaring as though he were slightly out of breath. His forehead crinkled as he processed everything she’d just told him. And then, finally he held up a hand: “So, are you still in love with this guy, this Bill?”
It was the absolute last thing she’d expected to come out of his mouth.
“What?” She screeched. “No! What, how could you even possibly think that—”
Jason frowned. “Well, I’m not really sure what to think. Are you afraid that I have a secret wife in the background?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Christina snapped, brushing away at the tears trickling down into the side of her lips.
“Then what does that story have to do with us?”
Her eyebrows arched. “Were you listening to me?”
“Of course,” he said, and his tone gentled. “And I’m sorry that that happened to you—”
She dropped her eyes. “Don’t. Don’t be sorry on my account. I was no victim.”
“It doesn’t sound like it from here,” Jason assured her.
Slicing her hand through the air, Christina’s voice sharpened. “I’m not sure if you’re deliberately missing the point or what…”
Jason smiled sadly. “No, Christina. I’m not mocking you. But you’re right, I don’t understand. You made a mistake. You did a terrible thing. Terrible things happened to you as a consequence—and I am sorry about the way it all happened. But that was in the past…”
“Your mother is afraid that I’m going to recreate my past.” Her words fell hard and flat between them. And then, a small bubble of laughter rose in her throat. “And really, she’s probably right.”
Jason rubbed a hand against one side of his face. “Yeah?”
“I should have never let anything happen between us. It’s history repeating itself. My bosses son—pretty similar line to my father’s business partner, don’t you think? It’s a conflict of interest, something taboo.”
Jason’s lips twitched. “Don’t you think that’s a bit melodramatic?”
“Not at all.”
“I lost my parents’ respect. I lost everything because of what happened with Bill. I promised I would never do that with Mary and Matthew. I swore it.”
“Christ,” Jason said. “How many times do you need to hear them say that you don’t need their permission? That it’s our choice, not theirs?” His voice grew with his proclamations: “That they approve of our dating?”
“After tonight?” Christina asked.
Jason sobered up a little at the words. “Yeah, what happened tonight?”
“Your mother’s worried about you. She’s worried about you dating me.”
Jason’s eyes narrowed. “That wasn’t the impression I got when she called me ten minutes ago. She seemed worried about you.”
Christina sighed. “You honestly think, after everything I just told you, that nothing would change between us? That your impression of me would be the same as it was last night?”
Jason’s arms swung out widely at his side. “Yes. I do.” Pausing, he considered. “Except, I guess now I know a little more about why you’re so guarded.”
But Christina only shook her head. “Yeah, well your mom thought nothing would change between us, either. But tonight we both found out that wasn’t true.” She sucked in her lower lip. “You wouldn’t be able to help it—seeing me differently, worrying when I tell you I have to work late, or that I’m going out for drinks with the girls…”
“Ah,” Jason said knowingly. “So I’ll start to worry that you’re cheating on me, is that it?”
She smiled. “Maybe.”
“Because you’ve frequently cheated on your boyfriends?”
At the words, Christina squirmed a little bit. “No, technically I’ve never cheated on my boyfriends. But I was a cheater.”
Jason nodded slowly. “And that’s a life sentence?”
She laughed. It had a watery weakness to it. “You really think you could trust me now?”
Silence met her words. Jason’s eyes were shadowed with emotion, his lips thinned and his cheeks etched in concern. Never once had he tried to reach for her.
She nodded, resigned. “Yeah, I didn’t think—”
“No.” At the hardly uttered word, Christina froze.
“This isn’t really about whether or not you ever had my parents approval or not,” Jason assured her. “Just as it’s not really about the affair you had when you were barely out of your teens.”
“No?” Christina felt some of her composure slip at the words. Her chin lifted a little. “Then what is it about?”
“You’re afraid. You’re the one who can’t, or won’t, trust others.”
“You’re not afraid you’ll recreate your past—at least, not in the way you’re trying so hard to convince everyone. You won’t cheat again. You can barely speak the words, they disgust you so much,” Jason assured her. His voice was low.
She loved the sound of those words. Her voice hardened at the thought. “Got me all figured out?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Jason assured her. He waved toward her general person. “I even know what you’re doing now—putting on that hard, cool persona to hide behind. But it doesn’t fool me. I’m not sure it ever did. You wear that prissy attitude like armor.”
Her eyes narrowed.
Jason took a step toward her. “It all boils down to the fact that you’re still hurt. Deeply hurt. Everyone in your life, everyone who was supposed to protect and love you, they left. The moment you made a mistake, the moment you showed yourself to be a young kid who’d done something wrong—with a man by the way, how took advantage of that innocence, the moment you made a mess, they turned their backs on you. Forever.”
Her lips quivered a little on the words, but she didn’t give him the pleasure of an answer.
“The only love you’ve ever known taught you about conditions, about terms and contracts. So that’s why you swore you’d never let what happened with your parents happen with Mary and Matthew, because you believed it could. And that’s why you hide behind your status as an adulterer, because it reminds you how fickle love can be, and it keeps you in check, doesn’t it? Never letting it go means you can never make another false move, ever again. So you cling tight to your past so you can keep this illusion of love you’ve created in response to all that pain, safe.”
Jason sighed. “But Christina, that’s not love. At least, it’s not all of it.”
Christina felt her stomach constrict. She felt her heart beating too quickly, erratically at the words, at how much she wanted to believe them. At how much she wanted to lean in and rest her head against his shoulder, let him take some of the weight hanging off her bones.
But old lessons died hard. And she knew, above all, that she could survive walking away from Jason. She could go on, walking away from his family. As long as it was her choice. The alternative—if she stayed and they left—it was unthinkable and it was the only thing she could think about. “It’s easy to say that now…”
At her words, Jason hung his head. It read with the look of defeat.
She kept her voice soft. “I know you think you mean it—”
His hands, down at his sides, clenched into fists. “I do mean it.”
“Yeah? Well, I lived it and I’m not so sure…”
“I’m not Bill.”
Christina went to reach out her hand toward him, but halfway there she let it drop back down to her side. “No. Never that.”
“Then stop comparing me to him. I’m not sending you away.”
“No,” she agreed, her mouth smiling tremulously. “Instead, I’m doing that for you.”
“I could say the same to you.” Christina whispered, her feet stepping backward until her back was at the door. Her hands reached behind her, grabbing for the doorknob. “Don’t watch me leave. Don’t wait for me to turn around. Just don’t.” With a twist of her wrist, she opened the door and, gentlemen that he was, though his face contorted with pain, Jason turned his head away as she slipped out the door.