“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.
“Oh, I was thinking about us.”
“What about us? Are you leaving again?”
She hit his leg with her hand and he laughed. She tipped her head up to kiss the underside of his chin.
“I …” Valerie started.
She shook her head. The thoughts bounced around her head like ping-pong balls until a single image floated to the surface — Mike’s back as he left for basic training.
“I stood at the door for three hours hoping you would come back. You’d change your mind and work for my dad. I was sure you’d never, ever, ever leave me.”
Hoping she would continue, Mike let the silence lag. She almost never talked about herself, and never talked about this time in their lives. She took a breath and let it out before saying anything else.
“I met the mailman at the door every day for three months. And when your random and rare letters came, I’d sit in my room for a day, at least, and read them over and over again. I was sure you’d be home in time to take me to prom or homecoming or … see me graduate. When you finally came home, you were so grown up, mature. You’d traveled all over the world. I could almost taste the women on you. I was just some stupid little small-town, high school girl, and you were a man.”
“Val, I …” Mike started, then stopped. This was her turn, her story. He could wait. He kissed the top of her head. Leaning back, he stretched his long arms to reach her brush on the marble counter. She almost purred when he began brushing her hair. “I want to hear what you have to say.”
“When I went to UCLA, I was going to find someone else … someone who’d stay … with me. But I never did.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I was trying to be good enough for you … for you.”
“Push, pull, push, pull, push, pull.”
Valerie jerked around in the bathtub so fast that the hairbrush flew out of Mike’s hand.
“Tell me this.” Her index finger jabbed his chest. “Who have you loved? Who? Who? Tell me. WHO?”
“I’ve only ever loved you, Val.”
“THEN WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME?”
Her eyes blazed her anger and pain. He saw her, at sixteen, standing at the door waiting all those hours. He saw her clutching his half-assed letters. He saw her face the last time they made love before he left for basic training. And the betrayal on that same face when he returned from his first tour. He’d changed. She hadn’t.
He left and didn’t come back until long after she stopped waiting for him.
In that moment, her finger bruising his chest, he saw every twist and turn of their relationship. His big hand covered her hand and finger. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.
“I left because of me and me only. I came back because of you. I’ll never leave again, Valerie and …” Mike stopped talking. His eyes caressed her face. “I’m sorry.”
“I will fight every day to stay right here … by your side …”
Their eyes held. She leaned forward and their lips touched. Sighing, she leaned against his chest.
“But if you want to be with Wes, fine. Hell, torture has its privileges. I can tolerate almost anything every once in a while, as long as I don’t have to fuck him.”
Valerie smiled and shook her head. This was one of the things she loved about Mike. He could diffuse any situation with a tangential reference to something absurd.
“He can have you on Wednesday nights.”
“While I play hockey. Our team switched from Saturdays to Wednesdays.”
“Yeah, he can spend a couple hours while I’m at hockey, if that’s what you want but …”
Valerie kissed him quiet.
“But when we’re in tournament …”
“Stop,” she said. “I don’t want to be with Wes. I only want you. I love you.”
He kissed her lips.
“Please don’t leave me again,” she whispered.
“Never by choice.”
“Never by choice,” she repeated his vow.
Mike retrieved the hair brush from across the room. Turning on the hot water to warm the tub, he kissed her head and returned to brushing her hair.
“So, no more hockey tournaments?”
“Now Val, be reasonable …”
The retelling of Denver Cereal, Volume 1, continues tomorrow…
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