This is chapter 6, one of my favorite chapters. It’s just so… Wendy and Gabe. It ends with a shocking admission–which I cut off at the end because I’m just mean like that. 🙂 Buy the book if you want to find out how it ends.
“This is not even a little bit fair,” I whine, throwing my hand of cards on the floor in between us. “I can’t move the cards fast enough with my gloves.”
Gabriel laughs. “Well playing Speed was your idea, you know.” He collects the cards to deal again. “How about I put gloves on, too?”
“That is a perfect idea,” I agree.
He grabs his gloves out of a drawer and then we go again. Almost immediately I decide this is the last round of any fast-paced card game for us tonight. It’s impossible to pick up cards with any quickness while wearing gloves. I steal a glance at Gabriel though, and find that I’m a pro compared to him. He’s still trying to fill his hand from his deck but the cards are too slick to pick up.
I giggle and keep going, more confident because clearly my experience with wearing gloves for a few months now has given me an edge.
I go out much more quickly than he does and I throw my hands up in a touchdown sign.
“Hijo de un sacerdote casto! How on earth do you manage this?” Gabriel says, holding his gloved hands out to look at them with disgust.
“You think picking up cards is hard, you should try turning the pages of a book… or using a smart phone… or buttoning a shirt… typing… Pretty much everything, actually. Oh, except for opening a peanut butter jar. That’s probably the only thing that’s easier.”
“Well you’ve obviously mastered it as well as it can be mastered,” he says. “Because you stole my lunch during that round.”
“I definitely did. But I am done holding cards. That was ridiculous.”
“Agreed. I prefer talking anyway.”
“What? No Disney movies?”
He gathers up the cards again and looks at me from under his eyelashes. “Are you being serious?”
I laugh and stand up, slightly nervous about what kind of talking Gabriel is thinking of. “No, not really.” I sit on the couch instead.
Gabriel comes to sit on the other end and we each lean against an arm, facing each other, knees bent. “Why do you always avoid talking?” he asks.
“I don’t avoid it.”
“Wendy.” He gives me a condescending look. “You do too. You avoid talking by using sarcasm and jokes to throw me off. What is it you are afraid of?”
I look away. Why does he have to be so perceptive?
“Are you still upset over this afternoon?” he asks.
I sigh. Silence stretches between us and I foolishly wish he would drop this. He just stares at me with stubborn resolve to get the truth from me though.
“Of course I am,” I answer finally.
“And saying that was hard, why?”
I glance at him before looking away again. “You ask me how I feel about it as if it’s not obvious, which seems like you’re saying it’s dumb to feel that way at all. It makes me not want to share things with you.”
“No, it’s not obvious what’s going on inside your head. At all. You immediately gave me the cold shoulder after seeing Lindsey’s life force like you were upset at me for some reason. That completely confused me since I couldn’t pinpoint anything I had done. And then when I tried to ask you about it, you got even more upset. So I waited to let you cool down from whatever it was and now when I bring it up again, you refuse to talk about it. I’m really trying to understand, but you act like you don’t want me to understand you.”
I rub my face, exhausted that, as usual, Gabriel wants to micro-analyze everything I do. “I’m just irrational when I’m upset,” I say. “I told you that in the car. I don’t have a reasonable explanation for you that will make my behavior logical. I don’t want to fight with you. I was giving you the cold shoulder so I wouldn’t say something ugly that I’d regret.”
“Again, that doesn’t explain why you are still reluctant to address it now, after this supposed irrationality you claim has worn off. Why was your automatic impulse to lash out at me?”
“I don’t know,” I say, propping my arm on the back of the couch. “I really don’t.”
Gabriel is overcome with disbelief and confusion then as he thinks about that, but then he says, “Well you need to figure it out. I’m not going to be the whipping boy for your emotions.”
I feel like I’m having a conversation with my mom, like Gabriel is my parent rather than my partner. Irritation blossoms like an acrid stench, summoning my rebellious nature. Intellectually I think Gabriel is right, but I don’t like his tone. To demand that I should be rational when I’ve been so thoroughly disappointed is too much to ask. I don’t have that kind of control when I’m upset.
I cross my arms over my chest and bite my tongue.
“And withdrawing even more is not going to help you do that,” he says, watching me.
I hate that he is so annoyingly mature and level-headed. This would go a lot easier if we could scream at each other for a while and loosen all the pent-up tension. Maybe this whole marrying someone who is eight years older than me isn’t such a good idea. I really don’t want to be parented all the time.
“Well then how do you propose I do that?” I say icily.
He sighs, concern loosening the grip of his frustration. “By being honest with me, Love,” he says softly. “Even when you’re upset, just tell me whatever you’re thinking, even if you think I don’t want to hear it or I won’t understand.”
“Fine,” I say, annoyed that he thinks hashing out every detail like this is helpful let alone some kind of bonding experience. What is the point of inviting emotions that are only going to devastate me?
I wish I could sit on the floor right now. But Gabriel knows that’s my tell. I take a throw pillow from the couch instead and hug it to my chest, still not looking at him but at a piece of artwork he has on his wall. Gabriel is a fan of M.C. Escher, the guy who did mathematical drawings that had screwy perceptions like two hands drawing each other. The one in my view now is called Relativity and features stairways that appear to go both up and down at the same time.
“I’m discouraged,” I say. “I saw nothing in that woman’s life force that gave me any direction. I told you I wasn’t expecting a cure. But I was expecting a lot more than nothing.”
He remains silent although his wheels are turning.
“Gabriel, I feel like I’m being forced to accept that this is how things are, that I’m stuck like this. And I’m… mad at you because you’re so okay with it…”
I gain steam then as I figure out how to articulate what I mean. “You’re like… light-years ahead of me when it comes to accepting that you might never touch me. I’m too afraid to really imagine what my life will be like without physical contact… It’s terrifying. I suck at dealing with this handicap. I can’t handle the ambiguity of the future. Will I ever touch again? I want to know so I can plan for it. Adjust to it. But you’re so damn good at handling it. So yeah, it makes me jealous of what you’re able to do that I can’t.”
I sigh with some relief. “And sometimes your maturity makes me feel like a child. And that pisses me off.”
More silence as Gabriel waits. When he decides I’m not going to continue, he says, “Is that all?”
I look at him. “For right now.”
“Do you really think it’s easy for me to deal with being unable to touch you?”
“Yes, I do. Isn’t it?”
“No. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Every moment around you is a struggle because I want that intimacy with you that comes so easily with touch. Every moment apart is a struggle because I spend it agonizing over what to do when I am around you. I am constantly second-guessing how I should behave, afraid I’m demanding too much or not communicating things the right way. How much flirting is too much? How much is not enough? How close can I get without you living the moment in fear of hurting me? How much do I touch what I can of you without you feeling like I’m dwelling on your body? I am so lost most of the time, just trying to blunder my way to meeting your expectations but not really knowing what those are. No. It is not easy.”
I exhale hurriedly because I’ve been holding my breath, relieved but amazed that Gabriel is, in fact, human.
“Sorry,” I say, looking down at my hands. “I didn’t know.” Ugh. I am so good at imagining I am the only person with issues worth thinking about.
“I could have told you. But of course I question how it will come across to you. Will you take it as me saying the situation is too much for me to handle? Will you feel inadequate? I have never second-guessed myself so much in my entire life as I have in the last month.”
I look into his eyes. I don’t think they’ve left me this entire time. “You must be coming to all the right conclusions because you make it look easy.”
“Well I’m not happy with my conclusions.”
I frown, trying to suppress my gut-reaction of assuming that he’s saying he’s done with us. That’s stupid. He gave me a ring only last night…
“What conclusions are those?” I ask when I finally work through my foolishness.
“Only one really. The conclusion that you aren’t happy with me.”
“What?” I reply. “That’s not true. I have never been happier.”
“Then your definition of happiness must be different from mine. You just told me that you’re upset that you can’t adjust to your handicap. To you, I seem happy and content to deal with it indefinitely which you say is the exact opposite of what you are: terrified to really entertain a life without touching people. That tells me you still haven’t found a place for me in your life that satisfies you. I’m not giving you what you need. If I was, you wouldn’t be so afraid to face that kind of life. I’m not helping you handle things. You can’t tell me that makes you happy.”
Gabriel’s logic can be so maddening. I think if I sat here and insisted I’m happy, he’d break out a chalkboard and start coming up with a mathematical proof why I’m not. While I follow what he’s saying, I can’t figure out how to point out where his error is. I don’t know how to communicate in his language.
“What do you want from me?” I ask wearily, propping my head up with my hand on the back of the couch. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I don’t know how to float hope of finding a cure with acceptance of what may likely be my future. You think that until I reconcile the two and do them both at the same time, I’ll never be truly happy.”
He sighs. “And you think happiness is dependent on an outcome. But let’s not argue about that. Were you serious when you asked me to tell you what to do?”
“Sure. You obviously know whether I’m happy better than I do so why wouldn’t you have the secret formula for happiness? I’m all ears.”
He gives me a withering look.
I roll my eyes, take several breaths, and reel in my sarcasm—though I don’t think it works entirely. “Yes, Gabriel. Please tell me what to do.”
“Have a conversation with me in which you don’t hedge.”
“Sure. What do you want to talk about?”
“Oh anything really.” He smiles. “I just like to hear you talk.”
“Well you’re going to have to give this conversation more juice than that. You can’t just say, ‘Let’s conversate’ and expect things to start rolling.”
“Fine…” He thinks for several beats. “Remember when I told you all those stories about my boyhood when Louise had us locked up?”
“It occurred to me then that you know far more about my childhood than I know about yours. Let’s remedy that. Tell me what you were like as a child.”
I furrow my brow. “What do you want to know?”
He shrugs. “Did you like pretend? Did you like coloring books? Or were you into science and the outdoors? Or maybe you danced a lot… I don’t know.”
I don’t like where this is going. But answering questions that have ugly answers is probably going to be easier than arguing with Gabriel’s logic about my happiness.
“I was pretty much a regular kid. I liked to draw,” I reply. “My mom said I made up songs a lot. I liked to run around outside but we didn’t always live in places that allowed much of that.”
“So you were more artistic as a child then… How did you end up choosing computer engineering for college?” he asks, intrigued.
“I needed a good job in order to provide for my brother. And when I researched the best paid four-year degrees, computer engineering was at the top of the list. So that’s why I picked it.” I notice, just in paying attention to his contentment as I answer, that Gabriel really does get a lot of pleasure out of hearing me talk…
I shift positions, drawing my legs under me to get more comfortable. But I think this conversation is about to get anything but comfortable. I consider moving to the floor again, but restrain the urge.
“So that’s really it?” Gabriel replies. “You picked it based solely on income potential?”
That confuses him. “But computer engineering is so specialized. I hear it takes a lot of brains and zeal to get through. You must be pretty gutsy to have pointed your finger at it and said, ‘I’m going to do that.’”
I shrug. “I didn’t really have a choice. I promised my mom I wouldn’t quit school if she would let me take care of Ezra. It was sink or swim. I needed money to provide for him. Computer engineering could deliver.”
“You do just blossom under pressure, don’t you?” he asks, although I think the question is rhetorical. “So is your passion more art-related then? You are an artist with food.”
He’s still looking at me with focused interest.
I look away, staring at Relativity on Gabriel’s wall again, trying to comprehend going both upstairs and downstairs at the same time. “No,” I reply. That’s not really the truth. But it’s not really a lie either.
“So what is it then? If your mom hadn’t died, what would you have gone to school for?”
My chest is tight. Gabriel is swinging his branch of questioning very close to tender areas. I want him to back off. I trace my eyes up and down the stairs, never actually ending up anywhere. Have a conversation without hedging, I say in my head over and over to gain courage.
“I was accepted to an art school just before my junior year of high school,” I say finally. “They offered me a full ride but I turned it down.”
The possibility of learning this new store of facts about me has filled Gabriel with ready anticipation. But he has also picked up my reluctance. He’s somewhat apprehensive about continuing his interrogation. But he does it anyway. “Why would you do that?”
Up the stairs. Down the stairs. Which way are the people in the drawing really going? Will they ever meet up at the same place?
“Because I decided not to go.” I can’t bring myself to continue. I’d rather him ask questions so that we end up at the truth.
He ponders my answer for a minute and I know he’s going to delve deeper. I’m holding my breath. I don’t want to talk about this—even though I know I ought to. I’m already so unsure all the time; I don’t think I can handle Gabriel possibly thinking less of me. I still can’t look at him.
“You were seventeen when you graduated from high school, weren’t you?” Gabriel asks in a lower voice.
I nod. I think if I were the one on those stairs in the picture, I’d head wherever the sun was.
“That’s awfully young to make a decision about your future like that. I don’t blame you for putting off college. Isn’t your birthday in October? Why did your mom put you in school so young?”
“I don’t know. I guess I was pretty bright and she figured I was ready. Mom was… weird about school.”
I struggle to explain it, grateful to be able to occupy myself with something other than dread. I even glance at Gabriel. “Um, it was kind of like she didn’t think it was necessary. It was secondary to other things. I mean we went to school, but Mom was always more concerned about… letting us do what we wanted. She said we ought to do what made us happy. She took me to art museums all the time and I was always enrolled in some art class at the college. She didn’t care if I had to miss school to do it either.”
I pause and then laugh drily as I remember. “I swear it was like she only had me go to school because the law said I had to. But she’d pull me out of class just because she found some really great museum or sculpture garden or hole-in-the-wall boutique with local art for sale. She probably would have sent me to a private art school if she could have afforded it… She probably would have done the same with Ezra except he loves academic stuff and thrives on that.”
“I take it you did well enough in school to merit that full scholarship offered to you as barely a junior though?” he asks.
I look down at my hands. We’re rounding back to the question I don’t want to answer. But what can I do but be truthful with him?
“I did pretty well,” I reply. “But I got in because I was talented. They liked my portfolio.”
Gabriel sighs and I can tell he is definitely concerned about what I’m avoiding so persistently.
“Wendy, why did you decide not to go to art school?” he asks, looking at me pointedly.
My eyes are back on Relativity. There’s one man looking over the balcony. As I try to imagine what he sees from there, I recognize that from his angle of sight, everything appears normal. He can’t see stairs going the wrong direction or people upside down. I have no idea how Escher accomplished that. Only the outside observer can see how bizarre those stairs are.
I take a slow breath. “Because–