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Six years old

 

He was sitting on the floor of the living room, watching a Saturday morning cartoon and playing with his GI Joe action figure when he heard his parents arguing from the kitchen. Well, it was more like his father was yelling at his mother while slamming cupboards and clinking glasses together. She said something about drinking at such an early hour and he got angry.

Jeff sat on the beige colored rug, trying to ignore what was happening, and the yelling that seemed to be getting louder. Truthfully, he was scared, because he always hated when his dad yelled. He yelled a lot. Sometimes at the TV or in the car. Mostly at his mom. A lot of times at Jeff. But he would always try to hide before that happened. His mom told him to do that. She seemed scared too.

But after a while, the yelling stopped and Jeff decided it was a safe time to venture into the kitchen where he would show his father his toys. He never really got to spend much time with his dad, he was hardly home. So Jeff wanted to take advantage of the situation. He neared the kitchen, calling out, “Dad!” But William grabbed his keys and his wallet to leave. Watching him, Doreen stood up in front of her husband and blocked his exit from the room.

“Don’t you go near him. Not like this,” Jeff heard her say.

“Out of my way,” he spat at her.

“Dad!” Jeff called, oblivious to what was going on.

“Don’t you go near my son.”

William shoved Doreen to the side and headed straight for the door, walking right past Jeff in the process, almost knocking him over.

“Dad? Where you going?” Jeff changed direction and followed him. William kept walking and ignored him. “Wanna play GI Joe with me?” No answer. “When you get back?” The door opened and then closed with a loud thud. Little Jeff sat in front of the closed door with his toys and said to the man who could no longer hear him, “I love you, daddy.” He watched the door sadly.

Despite his disappointment, he was willing to wait for him to come home. But after a few silent and lonely minutes, he heard his mother sniffling as she swooped him up in her arms to go somewhere else, “Come on, sweetie. Why don’t you show me your toys?”

 

-----

Eleven years old

 

He hated baseball. He hated it! Why did his mom make him play? He sucked! He struck out every time, he sucked at catching, and the coach always had him on the bench. To make matters worse, everyone else seemed to be friends with each other. Everyone except for Jeff. Plus, everyone else was good at the game. And they practiced with their dads. Everyone else had a dad. Jeff didn’t have any of that.

He was lucky enough to have his mom there, supporting him from the bleachers, but it wasn’t the same. He couldn’t shake away the feeling that everyone knew his dad wasn’t around. They pitied him. He almost wished she didn’t go to the games though, because all she did was look at him sadly while he sat on the sidelines kicking rocks.

As soon as they got home, Jeff headed straight for his room, jumping face first into his pillow. He couldn’t cry about his situation in front of his teammates, but now he was home, free to hide from the world and sulk in private. He declined when his mom offered to make him lunch, or when she offered to take him to the mall where he loved to get his favorite chocolate milkshakes.

He closed the door before he went to his bed, but after a little while, there was a soft knock and Doreen opened the door slightly. He didn’t lift his head, just stayed pressed into the pillow. “Jeffrey, honey.” He didn’t answer. “Look, sweetie, I know you don’t like baseball. So, if you want to quit, that’s okay with me.”

He knew she was waiting for him to speak, but he couldn’t because he was holding back a sob from the sound of her words. He was relieved, that he didn’t have to play anymore, and that maybe she was finally understanding him.

He heard her sigh and pat the doorframe, after his lack of response. “Let me know what you want to do, okay? I can call Coach Hadden tomorrow to let him know.” No answer. “Come out of here when you want lunch, okay?” She paused. “I love you, Jeffrey.”

She waited there for a few moments, as he laid in silence, still in his baseball uniform. It wasn’t until she turned to leave that he mumbled a soft “Love you.”

He eventually rolled over to wipe away the tears on his face.

 

-----

Sixteen years old

 

Maggie was his first girlfriend. She was actually his only girlfriend in all the time he attended high school. It was their three-month anniversary and Jeff took her bowling and then to the diner from around the corner. It was the best he could do, he was only in high school after all. His only income was coming from Mrs. Smith from across the street. She paid him five dollars an hour to do yardwork every other weekend.

Jeff and Maggie had fun together. They’d known each other since elementary school but they didn’t really become friends until they were in English class together their junior year. She was pretty, had shoulder-length, curly brown hair, and hazel eyes. She had a cute smile and always laughed at his jokes. They blatantly flirted for weeks and when it became obvious that they were attracted to each other, he asked her out. She giggled and said yes, and cut to three months later, they were still doing the same thing. Going on dates, spending time at her house (her family was pretty wealthy, so there was always something to do there), and making out in her dad’s fancy car when it was late at night. Jeff never really took her home to his house because he was kind of embarrassed, but she met Doreen once or twice.

She knew about his dad and his home life, but she never asked about it. He never went into detail, but it was a known fact in his hometown that William Winger left Jeff and Doreen without ever looking back. And even though they never talked about it, he felt like they had an understanding. So on that night of their anniversary, he thought about how she was willing to stick around with him for that long. He wasn’t used to having someone like that, so maybe that was why that when they were making out on her bed, he said it.

“Maggie,” he said as he pulled away from their kiss.

“Mhm?” She was slowly lifting the hem of his shirt.

His eyes searched hers. “I love you.”

She was quiet. Her mouth hung open in surprise. He waited.

“Oh. Jeff…” She let go of his shirt and sat up in her bed.

He couldn’t meet her eyes, and cleared his throat out of discomfort. “Y-yeah?”

She wiped her mouth where her lip gloss smudged, “Um, I don’t know. It just feels…soon.”

He was mortified. He wanted to die. He couldn’t believe what was happening. He was such a fucking idiot. “Oh…um…soon?”

“Yeah, I mean. It’s only been three months. And you know, I thought we were just having fun,” she winced. Oh god. Now she was pitying him.

“Oh. I—I didn’t know that’s how…you felt,” he rubbed the back of his neck.

“Um. Yeah.” She brought her knees up to her chest.

“I think…I think I should go,” he slipped off the bed, wanting to be out of there as fast as he could.

“Jeff, I think you’re really great,” she said as he slipped on his beat-up Chucks. “But, I just don’t see us…working in the long run. I’m moving away to school next summer, and you’re…” She shrugged.

“Yup,” he stood up straight, aggressively avoiding eye contact. “Don’t worry about it, you’re right.” He grabbed his jacket that was thrown on the floor. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” And after an awkward pause and one last look, he bolted out of the room and went home.

They stopped seeing each other after that night. They didn’t talk at school anymore. He never dated anyone else.

 

-----

Twenty-seven years old

 

This was his life. He had a kick-ass job at a law firm, his boss loved him, he slept with different women every night, and all of his coworkers were insanely jealous. He was young, successful, and had everything a man could want.

All with a fake bachelor’s degree.

No one knew his secret. No one would ever know.

His current situation was pretty damn good, and he would do anything he could to keep it that way. And speaking of current situation, he had just spent the evening (and early hours of the morning) with his current fling. It wasn’t so much a fling as it was the woman who would call him up every month when she was in town.

Evangeline. She was around his age, just about thirty. She was gorgeous. Tall, redheaded, and loved scotch as much as he did. He met her in a bar six months prior. She was a flight attendant and made her round to Denver about once every month. They didn’t know much about each other than the fact that they had good chemistry and incredibly good sex. Jeff broke a rule of his, when he decided to sleep with this woman more than once. He was a one and done type of man, and he promised himself he wouldn’t get caught up in anymore relationships. But the sex was so good and they genuinely had a good time together. There were no strings. It was the perfect arrangement.

Arrangement—not relationship.

But it came to an end that night.

She usually left after a few drinks and a few rounds in his sheets, but this time she asked to take a shower before she headed back to work. He was hesitant but then readily agreed when she crawled on top of him and bit his ear.

“Thanks, babe,” she purred as she kissed his neck and hopped of the bed.

Jeff sighed contently and collapsed against his pillow.

He heard her gasp in delight when she reached the bathroom. “Oh my god, Jeff. Your shower is huge. This place is seriously amazing.”

“I know,” he called out smugly.

She poked her head out from behind the door. “Mind if I use your shampoo?” She gazed at him tantalizingly.

Oh, what the hell. “Only if you repay me.”

“Oh yeah? How?”

“I can think of a few ways,” he grinned.

She laughed girlishly, “Ugh, I love you.” And then she disappeared into the room.

Suddenly his smile vanished and he swallowed thickly.      

She didn’t mean it. Not in the way it’s supposed to mean. She was just flirting, it was her thing. He knew that, yet he still felt nauseous at the sound of those words. Those goddamn words. This was just a fling and they both knew it. Hell, he figured she had a boyfriend back home. He didn’t know and he didn’t care because this was just a fling and that’s why it was safe. There were no feelings, no strings. It was sex, nothing more.

She didn’t mean it.

But when she said the words, that dreaded phrase, something switched off inside him.

He made a promise to himself. It wasn’t going to happen again.

He pretended to be asleep when she got out of her shower. She left after she got dressed and collected her items strewn across the room.

As soon as the door closed, he blocked her number from his phone.

 

-----

Thirty-six years old

 

“At least we have the decency to keep it a secret instead of blurting ‘I love you’ to everyone who sleeps with us!”

“Oh, please, I never loved you!”

“Aha! I win, I win, I win!”

 

He knew it. She knew it. They all knew it. Britta never loved Jeff and he was glad it was finally out in the open. No one loved anyone and relationships would always be a big lame joke. He’d been down that road before, more than once, and the disappointment was inevitable.

Jeff shook his head as he sat alone in his kitchen to eat dinner that night. His nose finally stopped bleeding from Annie’s punch, thank god. He rolled his eyes at everything that happened earlier that day. It was a mess, and he was mature enough to admit that a lot of it was his fault. But now there were no more secrets. There were no more secrets and Jeff had confirmation that yet another person didn’t love him.

But he knew that.

He pushed away his plate of cold chicken. He lost his appetite.

 

-----

Forty years old

 

It was the night Annie and Abed were leaving. Jeff promised to drive them to the airport, which was how he found himself piling a collection of suitcases into the trunk of his Lexus. They were parked outside of Apartment 303, but Abed was already in the car, saying something about practicing his final parting lines and another little something about giving the leading man some privacy for some last-minute revelations.

Jeff just shrugged and lifted his eyebrow at Annie, who laughed and shook her head in adoration for Abed who she would miss enormously. She looked back at Jeff when he closed the trunk.

“So, I think that’s it?”

“Mhm, I think so.”

He let out a breath and smiled at her, filled with nerves and complete compassion for the woman in front of him. She smiled right back, and took a step closer to him and held on to his hands.

He swallowed. “You excited?”

She nodded and tilted her head. “Yeah. I am.”

“Good,” he breathed.

“This week has been…” She shook her head, like she didn’t have the words to explain what she was feeling.

“Yeah. For me too.” He looked right into her eyes. He needed her to know.

“Look, Jeff—”

“Annie—”

“Sorry,” she smiled. “You go.”

He swallowed. “Before we leave, and go in the car…” he sighed, “I just…I need you to know that I meant everything I said last week, in the study room. I’ve never…I’ve never been this guy, the guy who…who has these feelings. Or,” he sighed, “I never wanted to have them. But somewhere, along the way,” he squeezed her hands, “my heart had Annie written all over it.” She smiled at him, her eyes sparkling. “I’ve never been more terrified about anything in my life,” he whispered, “but…I guess I just…I—”

“I love you.” She beat him to it.

“I—What?” The wind was knocked out of him.

She covered her mouth slightly with her fingers. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just, I couldn’t hold back anymore,” she said softly.

“You love me?”

All she could do was nod, while tears appeared at the corner of her wide eyes. “I do,” she whispered.

He swallowed and stepped even closer, into her space. “Annie Edison,” he breathed. “I’m so relieved to hear that because I am absolutely and so completely in love with you.” Annie let out a tearful laugh and lunged to wrap her arms around his neck. He wrapped himself around her whole body and held her securely against him, trying to put everything he was feeling into one hug.

When they pulled apart, Annie reached to cup his face with both hands and pulled him down for a tender kiss. He sunk into it, relieved that everything was now said out loud and that their feelings were indeed mutual. The kiss was similar to the one in the study room, but this time it was more relaxed and sure and laced with those words.

Jeff pulled away slightly before pecking her lips once more.

“I love you.” He said it so quietly, but it was the first time he since he was eleven years old that he knew what it truly felt like to love and be loved.