Sorry. I had to go out of town last weekend, and I'm also trying to wrap up a bunch of stuff before I go on vacation this week. I hope to have the next part up tomorrow, whether I'm traveling or not. It will probably be the last section of the story, or at least the next-to-last (penultimate, if you're dorkly like me and like to use big words).
Anyway, in case you've forgotten what's been going on, here's a refresher course: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine
The moment I spoke them, I wanted the words back.
From the moment I had decided that I was going to visit Tori--that she was going to be the first person that I talked to about the grim news--I had formulated the best way to tell her. The words and the conversations and the discussion had tumbled through my head since I had left Bar Harbor. Whenever I doubted myself, the reflection on the windshield--or the image of the two of us together, younger, happier--had driven me forward.
The emotional roller coaster that I had subjected myself to over the past few hours, however, had forced me to blurt out the comment rather than break into the news gently.
For a second, Tori sat with a look that hovered somewhere between annoyance and amusement. The corner of one side of her mouth was lifted in a disbelieving smile, while the other side was painted with a mixture of grief and shock. The amused side was winning when I felt everything inside of me--every reserve I had, every bit of emotional integrity that I clung to preventing the breakdown that I knew was coming--crumbled. A single tear fell from my eye, streaking down my cheek and landing on the table.
"Oh, Jesus," she said, raising a hand to her mouth to hide her shock.
"I'm sorry, Tori," I said, the tears--now unleashed--flowing freely.
"What the hell?" she said, leaning back from me. I felt my lower lip tremble. Closing my eyes, I felt them leak down the sides of my face. The tears splattered on the table. Despite all that, I forced myself to keep my emotions in check.
"I'm sorry, Tori," I repeated, my voice barely above a whisper. "That came out all wrong. I'm just...I'm scared and I'm sad and I thought I could do this and put a brave face on it all..." I opened my eyes and looked at her, shaking my head. "I didn't mean to dump it on you like that. It's just..."
"Rob," she said, her voice calm and soothing. "Tell me what's wrong."
I paused for a second, collecting my thoughts and taking a deep breath. "About a month ago, I went in for a check-up. I had been having trouble breathing, a tightness in my chest, and this cough I couldn't shake. I figured the doctor would give me the same talk I always get: stop smoking, lose some weight, eat more oatmeal. You know, the same old shit.
"Then, last week, I went in for my follow up. The doctor told me he had some bad news, that the cigarettes were catching up with me." I looked away because I did not want her to see the tears in my eyes. "He said it was aggressive, but if I had come in earlier, they might have caught it and helped slow it down. They took some chest x-rays and saw a couple of spots, and he said the outlook was 'not so good.'
"I went home wondering what 'not so good' meant. When I checked out lung cancer survival numbers on the American Cancer Society's website, 'not so good' suddenly became 'you're going to die.'" I shook my head; a tear rolled down my cheek. Tori held a hand over her mouth; tears ran down her cheeks.
"The doctor told me I should try to relax, cut some stress out of my life. He said to take it easy, but I couldn't stay at my townhome any longer. I needed to get out, to get away somewhere that I could clear my mind. Stupidly, I kept smoking..."
"Rob--" Tori said, but I pushed forward, not letting her bother me.
"I figured I didn't have much time left, anyway, I might as well go out enjoying myself. So, I ended up driving up to Maine, just for the hell of it. I always wanted to go, I figured I should go while I still could.
"While I was up there, something happened. I don't know what it was or why, but something shifted inside of me, and I stopped smoking. I was going to just roll over and die, and then suddenly my mind changed. I decided to quit with the smokes and to try and fight this, no matter how futile it might be."
Though her eyes were now drier, the emeralds in them shone brighter. I remembered as I looked over at her why I fell in love with her in the first place. I wanted nothing more than to grab her up in my arms and hold her and feel the safety and comfort of my body in her grasp once more.
"The doctor offered me a chance to get in on some clinical trial, so I called him from the road and said I'd do it. The problem is, the trial doesn't start until August, so I have some time to kill. When I was digging through some papers and such, that's when I found that picture of us from my graduation." I let my voice trail off as I struggled to find the right words. "You are the first person I've talked to about this," I admitted. "When I saw that picture, all the memories of you I had been trying to bury suddenly came back. I knew then that you were the person I should talk to. You would at least understand what was wrong with me, and you know me the best of anyone around, even though it's been so long."
"Robbie, I...I don't know what to say," she said, trying to force a smile onto features wracked with sadness and empathy. "I'm...I'm honored, but...it's just so much."
"I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to dump it all on you like this."
"No, that's what friends are for," she said. Carefully, she reached out her hand and laid it on top of mine. Her fingers were cool, but the warmth that flowed through them energized me. My insides jumped alive at her touch. I closed my eyes to try and stop the flow of tears, and then I did something stupid.
I moved my hand and took hers in mine, interlacing our fingers like we had done when we were still together. She did not resist me, and I squeezed her hand softly while it was locked with mine. For the first time in weeks, I felt content.
"So..." I finally said after we sat in silence for a time, "why were you looking me up online?"
"I missed you," she said plainly, waiting for the waitress to come and refill our coffee cups before she responded. "I've looked you up several times over the years, I've just..."
"Never sent me an email or called." I offered a half smile. "I know. I've done the same." I pressed my lips together into a sort of frowning grimace. "I just did not know what to say."
"I did send Christmas cards," she said, smiling.
"I know. That's how I knew your address." We both laughed for a moment.
"You're such a good stalker," she said.
"Except when I'm getting punched in the face by my target's significant other," I said, working my jaw back and forth. We laughed again.
"Yeah, Drew has some anger and jealousy issues," she said, her voice quieter than it had been. "I thought he would mellow with age and the more time we spent together."
"But it hasn't?"
She shook her head.
"He takes it out--"
"I don't want to talk about it," she said flatly.
I hesitated before nodding. I squeezed her hand; she squeezed back. A tear rolled down her cheek. "He's still a good man," she said softly. "Despite everything, I still love him. I just wish that I knew that he loved me."
I wanted to pull her into my arms again, but this time it was a selfless desire. I wanted to let her know that I was there for her, that she could count on me as much as she needed or that I could provide. Instead, I squeezed her hand. She pulled her fingers away from mine and wiped her eyes. My heart deflated until she reached for me once more.
"I'm sure he does, Tori," I said. "He'd be an idiot not to."
She looked up at me, sad, sparkling green eyes locking with mine. She looked so vulnerable, so beautiful. I tried to hide my feelings, but I could sense her probing me, seeing into me. My emotions were not simply on my sleeve; they were displayed around me, glowing like a neon sign. Though I wanted to keep them in check, I knew that I could not. Frankly, at this point, I did not care.
"At least I know someone still does," she said softly and squeezed my hand. My throat tightened, yet my lips curled involuntarily into a smile.
"I should probably get you home," I said. I wanted to sit with her there forever, but I knew it was getting late. I had already been pummeled once that evening; I was not looking forward to another beating.
"I'm in no rush. I want to spend time with you."
"Maybe we should go for a walk," I said. I had been moving too much over the past few days. Despite the company and my personal desires, I did not feel completely comfortable sitting in one place too long.
"At ten thirty at night? Here? You're insane!" She laughed. She grabbed the check and slid out of the booth. "But, if you want to get out of here that quickly, then let's go. We can talk in the car."
We ducked outside into the night where the air was close and hot. Despite the summer temperatures, she pressed up next to me slipping her arm through mine. Everything felt right and whole once more. We walked through the parking lot slowly; I savored the feel of her on my arm again while she seemed content to lean her head against my shoulder. When we got to the car, she broke away as I reached to open her door. Before my fingers could pull back on the handle, she stepped in front of me. Her cheeks were wet with fresh tears.
"I'm so sorry, Robbie," she said. "Thank you for finding me. Thank you for telling me." She wrapped her arms around my chest, burying her face in my shirt. My hands instinctively embraced her. The weight of her in my arms once more was reassuring, calming. Suddenly, I felt like I could make it through whatever journey lay ahead of me...if only she would be there with me. I knew it was too much to ask.
I did not care, however. I wanted to remember this moment for the rest of my life. I needed this, to be reminded what it felt like to be with her. It was almost better than feeling alive.
"I don't know what else I can do for you, Robbie," she said. "Just know that I'm here for you. I know it's tough. I wish I could help more." She looked up into my eyes, and for a moment we hung as if on a precipice. And then I did something else very stupid.
I kissed her.
At first, there was the slightest hint of resistance. When my lips met hers, I could feel that she wanted to pull away, but suddenly she flowed into the kiss, pressing her mouth back against mine. My arms suddenly held her tighter, and she gripped my shirt front. My heart hammered within my chest as I kissed her again and again and again. I felt her fingers tangle within the fabric of my shirt, her other hand running up my back to the nape of my neck. Her fingernails scratched my scalp as her fingers went through my hair. One of my hands slid down her back to cup her ass. I felt twenty years younger suddenly. My entire body burned and pulsed with desire.
Finally, she pulled away from me, holding my face with both of her hands so that she could stare into my eyes.
"There's a hotel down the street. Let's go before I change my mind," she instructed.
My keys were already in my hand.