How They May Be: After the Fallbynomennescio©
The following story is a sequel to 'How They May Be.' While I imagine that it should be more or less comprehensible on its own, it is very much intended to be read second.
Like its predecessor, it is also somewhat long, with a relatively small proportion of explicit content; I might have placed it under romance or novellas, but I figured that the relationship of the characters took precedence here.
If you still wish to read it, I hope you enjoy it.
I sat holding Emily on the hotel room floor for what seemed a lifetime, her head upon my shoulder as sobs slowly gave way to sniffles, and then to silence. I had caused this - the accusation reverberated in my mind, as terrible as it was undeniable. By my careless neglect, with my lustful hands, I had built a monster to tear apart my life, my daughter's life. A perversion of love, insinuating its way into Emily's heart and laying there its cruel barbs.
I had to think. I could not, as it was - not with her softness against me, her bare skin on mine, her slim and youthful figure only a downcast glance away. My body was too receptive to her touch, even in the sober light of a Sunday morning. I had to force my reluctant arms to push her away from me, up and to her feet, where she looked down at me with an anxious, red-eyed gaze and asked with a hesitant, almost pleading tone, "Daddy, can't you...?"
She did not put words to the question, perhaps could not, but I knew her meaning all the same - a world of impossibilities lurked in that trailing silence, of promises and sins, joy and suffering. And I could not trust myself to answer it. Not when even the rightful response would bring tears back into her gentle eyes. Instead I fixed my gaze to the floor, and spoke in measured, distant tones, hiding my own ache behind a wall of careful detachment. "We'll discuss this later, Emily."
"But..." Her hands wrung pitifully together at the top of my vision, striking at my resolve while it was still a weak and formless notion.
"Later." I could hardly shape the word. "Take your shower. Get dressed. Today will be a long day." I desperately invoked whatever remained of my paternal authority, needing to get her away, out of my sight, before my will collapsed and I swept her back into my arms, promised her everything she wanted. And damned us both in the doing.
She stood there in silence for a few moments, her stance tight with a longing which mirrored my own. But finally, mercifully, she obeyed, turned and disappeared into the bathroom, the sounds of the shower cutting in seconds later as I breathed with shallow relief. It was only a momentary respite, but it was badly needed. Laboring to my feet, I found my boxers and undershirt where I had carelessly cast them aside the previous night and covered myself before sitting back on the bed.
What was I to do? How could I hope to make this right again? I had thought earlier of asylum, that I should check myself into a mental hospital for my sickness, leave Emily to her own devices or in the care of a nanny. Reflection now made this look a less suitable path. I had obligations - to work, to my friends. I couldn't just disappear into an institution somewhere and leave the rest of life on hold. Even if I could, I didn't really know where or how. For drug addiction or alcoholism, there were a multitude of clinics which would take in anyone willing to pay. For this...
More than that, the prospect of turning myself over to the mental health industry was an unattractive one. I had had trouble enough in merely speaking of my desires to my priest, from the safety of an anonymous confession; I did not know that I could bear to tell some unknown psychiatrist of the depths to which I had since fallen. I could just see him, bespectacled and lean, watching me like an entomologist dissecting a rare beetle, his eyes aglow at this chance to observe such a fascinating freak. Recording my sins and my shame in exacting detail, and sharing them with his colleagues to win the accolades due the discoverer of so broken and wretched a man.
No, it would not do. I had to separate myself from Emily, but I had to do it on my own terms. I could perhaps just rent a hotel room back in Los Angeles; that would in itself solve most of the problem. If I were not near her, I could not succumb to my temptations.
My gaze flickered to the wall which concealed her from my sight. Our temptations. It seemed so impossible, still, that she was joined in this insanity with me, or I with her. A phrase leapt unbidden to my mind, some distant recollection twinged into consciousness - 'folie à deux.' A madness shared by two. Put that way, it was almost a romantic notion.
Sudden anger tightened my hand into a fist, nails biting my palm. I could not think that, damn it, I dared not. There was nothing of beauty in this, no more than there would be if we suffered from dementia or delusions. It was sickness, not some ordained connection, and the revelation that it was shared only made it more vital that I absent myself from her presence, before...
A slow sigh escaped my lips, weary despite the early hour. Before what? I had already succumbed to my desires, already stolen my daughter's innocence. I could not take that back, however much I might wish to. All I could hope now was that I might keep from turning disaster into catastrophe. That by leaving, I could make this a single, terrible mistake, rather than the beginning of a great depravity which would forever scar Emily's life.
I stared dully at the off-white carpeting beside the bed. Yes, this was what I had to do - the best of a number of deeply horrible choices. But I knew that I could not afford to tell her, at least not yet. It would bring tears and pain that I could not stand to see; there was hurt enough of my own, just in the thought of leaving her side. So for a time I sat there, the low thrum of cascading water humming in my ears, and tried to force myself to forget the satin softness of Emily's skin against me the past night, the melody of her cries and the gentle hunger of her kisses.
It seemed Emily's time in the shower was enough to rediscover her shame, for when she emerged from the bathroom loosely draped in a fluffy white hotel towel, her eyes were downcast, her stance small and quiet. There was a moment of awkwardness as I moved past her, as she intoned the beginning of a word - just a brief note from the top of her throat, before falling into silence. I glanced down at her and she looked away again, leaving me gazing at the side of her narrow jaw, at the soft pink ear which nestled like a dove amidst her wetly mussed midnight locks, at the milky-white expanse of her elegant neck. And lower, the body which burned in my memory, its modest covering only granting it a greater allure.
It was an effort of will to call back my eyes from their descent. I said nothing. There was nothing to be said. I disappeared into the bathroom, tried to scour off my sin beneath a stream of scalding water, to wash away the faint residue of mingled sweat that still clung to me. But even with my body cleaned, I still felt the stain of my failure. My mood scarcely improved, I emerged again to find Emily waiting for me, sitting lightly perched atop the dresser.
Quietly. "Are you going to go to more meetings today?" She'd dressed in jeans and a snowy white sweater. A picture of innocence, unblemished by the night we had shared. She still didn't look at me, her eyes fixed at the base of the wall, the slightest flush simmering on her cheeks. Her tone struggled to contain a host of emotions - accusation and apology, hurt and want.
"Of course." I pulled a suit from the closet, grateful for the small distraction to busy my hands, my mind. Sky blue shirt, jacket an ash that trended to black. "I have responsibilities, sweetheart. Duties." I could keep my voice steady, if I sent my heart somewhere far away.
"Are we...um, can we get breakfast together, though?" Hope strained at her words as she looked up at me, and I was forced to turn my gaze away.
"No," I intoned flatly, with a shake of the head. "I'm already late. And besides," the words came as a distant echo, "I'm not really hungry this morning." I risked a quick glance into her forlorn eyes. "We'll be finishing up and getting ready to go at one o'clock. You can handle yourself until then. Just meet me here in the room, okay?"
Emily did not immediately respond, and when she did, her answer came out as little more than a whisper. "Okay."
"Good. You..." I wanted to comfort her. It was impossible to miss her pain. But the only words I had to offer were empty. "You'll be fine, pumpkin. Everything's going to be okay." And with nothing further said, I dressed and departed for the remaining two meetings of the retreat, leaving her to sit silently upon the dresser's edge. We did not speak a goodbye as I left - just shared a look, our eyes meeting for the merest moment before dodging away again. So great a change from the ease and joy of our interactions over the past two days.
For all my talk of duties and responsibilities, it was that - she - which filled my mind as I attended to the day's gatherings. How obvious it seemed now, viewed through the lens of retrospect. The hints of Emily's true feeling had been abundant - the pretense of marriage she offered, her anger and possessiveness on meeting Katheryn, her softly insistent demands to dance with me. And how blind I must have been, to miss it before.
A willing blindness, no doubt; so long as I was in ignorance, I had been free to engage with her, to dance and to laugh and to embrace, pretending I was only maintaining what we had before this desire took hold of me. Now the veil was lifted, the truth laid bare, and we both knew what our smiles truly said. Every glance was a kiss, every touch an intimate whisper. Any softness on my part would be a cruelty, or else an invitation to a repeat of my failure. And Emily - for all her mischief and her seeming confidence, she was a teenaged girl, insecure and uncertain. Her eyes now spoke perhaps too plainly for her to bear.
The hours that followed I spent in a kind of reverie, a blur of faces babbling around me about the dawn of a new financial era while I steeled my soul and hardened my heart for what had to come. I had only one new freedom, that I no longer had to pretend that everything was normal. I could afford to push her away now - if I could stand to. If I could do the right thing, when it came down to the wire and there were no deceptions and appearances to complicate matters.
It was with that thought in mind that I returned to our room, when all the meetings were done and it was time to depart. I trod heavily inside, brusquely, as though purpose were the only thing within me. Emily hardly seemed to have moved since I left, sitting folded up upon the bed with her knees clutched between her arms, the television on and tuned to some soap opera with the sound a trifle too quiet to hear comfortably. This time I did not hide my gaze. I forced myself to look at her flatly, the feeling scoured from my face. Like stone, a silent command pressing upon my heart. Only a slight twitch of my lips sneaking through as testimony to the emotion I was struggling to quash.
"Let's go." I spoke briefly, impersonally, as I gathered up the belongings spread across the room and brought them over to my bag. Packing it all up again, neat and orderly. Everything in its proper place.
The television turned off, and I could hear the silence that flowed from her, straining wordlessly as she drew up close behind. She paused there, waiting, and I felt a twin shiver of anticipation and dread at the prospect of her touch. But the moment passed. She moved on silently to her own luggage, wadding up the discarded clothing which lay scattered around it. I watched her from the corner of my eye as she shoved it inside, a taut violence in her motion. Anger, or bitterness, or worry...it didn't matter, I told myself. She was done, kneeling heavily on the soft-walled suitcase, waiting for me. It was time to leave, to put a close to this entire grotesque affair.
There was a bus again, and a wait at the airport, and a long flight back to the mainland. And in all those hours, we did not speak a single word to one another. As though we were strangers who only happened to be traveling identical paths, politely ignoring one another's presence.
No, not entirely true. I treated her as such, or tried to - my face was buried in one of the airline's unreadable magazines throughout the flight, forcing myself to read through stilted articles about popular New York chefs and the rise of vacation homes in Oceania. But I sometimes felt her eyes on me, studying the side of my face for what seemed minutes at a time. I ignored it. We were in public, and there was a kind of safety in that. Even if she broke her silence, she would surely not speak openly where others could hear.
In fact, it was not until we picked up the car from long-term parking and started on the final leg of our journey home that she spoke again. Her head leaned against the window, looking out into the deepening dusk as we accelerated onto the highway. "We wouldn't have to tell anyone." Her words came so thin and soft against the background rumble of the engine, I was hardly even sure I had heard them.
"What's that?" I only glanced at her for a moment, just long enough to see her pale cheek flash as we passed beneath the yellow radiance of a sodium streetlight.
"If you're afraid of what people would think." Her dulcet voice insinuated gently into my ear. "We could just pretend like everything is normal. Nobody else would have to know."
I looked to Emily again, and her silver eyes speared into mine. Promising. Hopeful. A little prayer sparkling in their depths. It was all I could do to wrench my gaze back to the road. "Is that what you think I'm worried about? What other people would say?" It came out bitterly, my inner turmoil finding purchase in my voice.
She was quiet for a moment, stung, but she pressed on patiently. "Daddy, I know you have to . . . keep up appearances. I understand that, and I don't mind. If we could be together..." Her hand moved to rest atop mine on the gear shift, small and warm and soft. "I'd be happy just with that. Even if I could never tell anybody. I can keep a secret."
Too long I let her hand stay there, as my heart bobbled in my throat. And too long silent, searching for the words of a denial. When I finally found them, I spat them at her angrily, my own self-loathing turned outwards. "That has nothing to do with it." And I shoved her hand away, moving mine back to the steering wheel. "It's just as wrong if only we know about it. I won't be that person, and I won't do that to you." I didn't even know how true that was - if the world were different, if others would not look upon my feelings with such disgust and horror . . . a useless thought. That was not the world I lived in.
"But daddy-" Her voice rose in frustration.
"Enough!" I forced a touch of steel into my voice, to make up for its absence in my resolve. "Damn it, Emily, you need to stop this. You need to put it out of your mind. Think about something else." It was a command to myself as much as to her. A helpless command, as no other thought could compete for my attention.
She did not try again, just sat turned away from me with her legs curled up on the seat. It was a pose I had seen many times, the last when she came in third place in her gymnastics competition, and it carried her misery so well that I felt it even without looking at her; a gnawing at the depths of my heart, from which my manufactured indifference could offer little protection. Though I tried to ignore it, as the miles wore on the sympathetic ache in my breast grew, and I knew I could not bear to leave her in such a state.
"Sweetheart, listen." I sighed softly, struggling for something which would soothe her. "I don't mean to yell. I just . . . you don't know how hard this is for me." Her quiet and bitterly sardonic snort made me revise my statement. "Or maybe you do, I don't know. But I didn't plan on this. I never imagined it could happen, I never wanted it to happen. I'm just trying to do the right thing, for you and...in general. And right now, it's not easy for me even to see what the right thing is."
Silence from her still, as she stared out into the night. "I hate to push you away," I continued quietly. "But right now I feel like I'm walking a tightrope, and you keep grabbing for me. I can't handle it. I wish I could, but I just...I can't."
She turned to face me then, a faintly rueful quirk to her mouth, and I was heartened to see that some of the gloom was lifted from her expression. "I . . . I guess I understand. I felt so weird about it, too, for the longest time. I didn't know if I should say something, or do something, or what. And I never really thought that this would ever..." She trailed off, with the slightest shake of her head. "Anyway, I mean, you don't have to say yes or no right now, right? We have time to take it slow, to figure out the if and - and the how." And a tiny, hopeful smile broke onto her face, like the glimmer of dawn on the horizon.
I thought of my intention, to leave the next morning. But I still dared not speak of it. "Yes," I guiltily agreed instead. "There's time." A moment's hesitant pause. "So, ah, what did you think of that cultural center, anyway?"
The artless change in topic provoked a genuine laugh from Emily, and her smile solidified. "It was okay. It was - nice. I mean, a little bit fakey, but the place was beautiful, and I really had fun." Her eyes flashed with recollection. "That reminds me, how's your foot?"
"Doing fine." With all that had happened, I'd almost forgotten how I had burned myself on the hot coals when trying out firewalking. "I hardly even have a blister."
"Good." Her voice was settling down with a wry kind of satisfaction, taking refuge in this interlude of normalcy. "You know, I liked the dancers, too - they had really interesting tattoos. I mean, I don't know if they were real or not, but either way they just had this powerful, artistic look to them."
"Are you thinking of getting one for yourself?" I could manage only a shadow of the playful teasing I would normally have put into the question.
"No, I don't think so." A quiet laugh. "It wouldn't look good on me, I don't think. And they're supposed to be for, like, warriors, aren't they?"
Old patterns, again - old habits. We managed this light conversation for the rest of the ride home, keeping the great question simmering below the surface, unaddressed. There was a tension within me as I worried about slipped words and about the danger of even this small accord. But there was a current of peace as well, a warm breeze in the chill of my reproach. I always found such comfort in these little talks, in the halcyon lightness of her thoughts. Though it was today only an avoidance of the true concern, it seemed still to ease the burden upon my heart, until I could almost manage a smile.
It was well into night by the time we finally pulled into that peach brick driveway, and our conversation stilled as we split up to bring our few bags into the house and get a quick snack from the fridge. I was ready to sleep, despite that the jet lag worked in our favor this time - these flights took quite a bit more out of me now than they had a decade previous, though whether that was from aging or just from being out of practice I could not say. But as I moved to go to my bedroom, I found Emily standing in the hall just before the door, leaning gently against the wall.
"So, um," she intoned quietly, a smile of bravado beneath eyes that didn't quite meet mine. "I was in my room, and my bed looks awfully lonely. I thought maybe..."