They had a weekly arrangement. A standing date, if you will. Soft and disgusting, really. They always swore they would never be the kind of couple that had to schedule time together but Lucia was bent on spending time with Noah during the week, not wanting to be something she called an uninvested abuelita. Noah adored her and she adored him, so nobody was complaining.
It was half past four on a Thursday afternoon which meant it was almost time to pack it in and meet Rafael at their regular bar or a new restaurant. When he called she answered on the second ring, sinking back into her chair and pulling her glasses off her face with a sigh of relief.
"Hi-" His tone was off.
"Check your local trending news lately?" Her heart leapt into her throat. She put him on speaker and opened her news app. The third headline down caught her attention. Stabbing Incident at Columbia University.
"Jesus, are you okay?"
"I'm okay." She opened the story. "I was across campus. A senior killed his girlfriend and then himself on the second floor of the library." It finally clicked.
"One of yours?" He let out a heavy sigh.
"They were both in my bar exam prep group. She was in my office hours…every other day practically. He was always waiting for her outside. I actually thought it was sweet." Something like self loathing crept into his voice. She bit her lip.
"I know, I know."
"Bourbon or scotch?" He shuffled, laughing lightly. She pictured him bent over his desk with his eyes closed, rubbing the back of his neck.
"There's a new bottle of bourbon at home."
"I'll pick up some Chinese then. Want me to meet you at-?"
"The university is closed. I'm on my way out. I'll see you at home." He paused, listening to her breathe for a moment. "I love you." Oh Rafael. She inhaled deeply.
"I love you. So much. I'll see you in a few."
"Thank you." He mumbled, hanging up. She listened to the dead line for a moment before jumping into action, packing up her bag and throwing on her coat. She slipped down the hall, texting the people that needed to know she was taking the following day off. She pulled the news story back up. There were already video clips of homicide detectives and witnesses speaking to the media. In the chaos of it all, a lot of the details had been leaked. A barely composed young woman had seen the whole thing and had tried to help. She spoke to a news team with a group of campus activists behind her.
He stabbed her twice in the throat and then he just…stood there. Eyes glazed over. I screamed for help and tried to stop the bleeding but he slashed his own wrists before the campus police could get to us. As a woman on this campus…as a survivor of domestic abuse myself I am shocked. Appalled. Disgusted. They will try to call him a victim. They will try to water this down. I will not be silenced. I will-
Olivia swallowed hard and abruptly locked her phone, tossing it in her bag. The subway seemed to be moving ridiculous slow. Her leg started to ache and she realized she had been bouncing it for the better part of 20 minutes, probably giving her ankle a blister in the process. The Chinese place down the block whipped up their usual order in less than 10 minutes. On the last stretch home she focused on her breathing, desperately trying to calm herself down so she wouldn't stress him out with frantic energy. When she slipped her key into the lock the door immediately opened. He took the take out bag from her over-full arms. She dropped her bag and toed off her boots with a sigh, shrugging her coat before following him to the kitchen.
"Hey." He was quiet. Pale. And his expression was carefully guarded. She slipped up behind him, wrapping one arm around his waist and the other around his chest, holding on as tight as she could. He bowed his head and sighed. She pressed her lips to the back of his neck and breathed deeply. He fidgeted with their dinner containers before gripping the counter with both hands, going a little weak in her arms. "I'm so sorry."
"I should have been able to…I keep thinking. What did I miss?" She put a hand over his heart, touching her lips to his shoulder.
"You didn't miss anything."
"Just the façade." He mused, voice hoarse. She could reiterate what he already knew- how many different ways this could have happened. Years of ritual abuse could yield the same result as one, unusually violent argument. But she didn't. She just kept holding him. After a long minute she pulled back, edging around him and pushing herself up to sit on the counter just next to him. He fixed her with a long look, corner of his mouth ticking up slightly as she leaned over to touch her forehead to his. He took her face in his hands to kiss her cheeks and nose and lips adoringly.
"What can I do?" She mumbled against his lips. He gasped out a wry laugh, leaning back while trying to link together some coherent thoughts. He frowned, shrugging.
"Tell me what to do, Liv." She stroked the side of his face. There was something cold in his gaze, like he was trying to press down a more base visceral reaction.
"Don't do that. Don't shut yourself down. You have to let yourself grieve." She rubbed circles on his temple with her thumb. "Let yourself feel. This was a tragedy. You know that. Your campus. Your student. You are close enough to be angry and disgusted and sad." He bit his lip and shifted his weight. "But you have to push out that guilt. There was no way you could have been close enough to stop this from happening. If there had been a sign you would have seen it." He leaned forward, kissing her quickly. "What was her name?"
"Ada Hernandez. From Buffalo. She wanted to start a child advocacy firm." He shifted closer. "First in her family to go to college. Child of immigrants. Very kind. Very bright. I need…I need to do something but I don't know what."
"Eat with me, even if it tastes bland. Lie down with me, even if you can't sleep. It'll come to you."
"There's going to be a vigil tomorrow."
"I'll go with you." He inhaled deeply, sliding a hand up the top of her thigh, anchoring himself to her belt. She took his chin in her hands and kissed him lingeringly.
"I think…I'm going to take a shower. I feel-"
"I get it." He linked his fingers with hers and tugged until she was sliding off the counter. She smiled and followed along beside him. Under the nearly boiling spray, between washing and rinsing, he kissed her over and over. Slow and methodical. Sinking into the comfort of intimacy more than anything. She draped her arms around his shoulders and tasted the water drops on his jaw. He rubbed his cheek against hers. She massaged the top of his spine. She wanted to ask what he was feeling now, but she sensed he needed the quiet. His kisses dripped down her neck and across her shoulder before he shut the water off.
They ate lukewarm chinese food in bed with the TV on, purposely avoiding the news. He cleaned up their take out boxes and poured them both a drink. Straight bourbon for himself, mixed with coke for her. She watch him take a single long drink before lying down, resting his cheek on her thigh. He pushed her fingers through his hair. He closed his eyes and pressed a long kiss to her knee.
"I think about my father…" He said softly. "I remember who he was before the drinking started. Not perfect, but a good man. He lost his job. And then the odd jobs dried up. Mami got her first promotion. He broke two fingers on his face."
"God." She whispered.
"I thought I was going to snap like that. Something would rub me the wrong way and I would have a little too much to drink and I would just…break." She sucked in a breath, plucking at the collar of his shirt.
"When we were at our worst, my mom broke a bottle on my back." He brought a hand up to caress her leg. "First house party I ever went to I got so tanked." She frowned. "Someone called the police because I was trying to kick someone's ribs in."
"I thought I was a time bomb. And I was for awhile." She took a drink, clinked the ice around. "When that behavior is modeled in front of you, it's impossible not to learn from it. You have to work so hard to unlearn it. And believe me, I've messed up. More than once. I would just…snap. And it almost cost me everything." He turned over so he could wrap his arms around her, hiding his face against her stomach. "Then you came along. And when we had a bit too much drink we would just laugh. Talk a bit too much." She felt him inch her shirt up. He kissed her hip ardently, smearing what felt like a stray tear against her skin. "Last time we drank vodka we were in bed by ten." He chuckled. "We're not them. We're better. We get to say that. We learned. You are so gentle, Rafael. Soft despite your circumstances. I know I'm safe with you. I know my son is safe with you. Nothing is going to change you. Not like that." He breathed deeply, holding her tighter.
"I hope you're right." He said. She kept stroking his hair.
"You ever think about how Noah treats Jessie Rollins and the other little girls in his class? His tee ball team?" He cracked a smile. "He's learning. He watches you as much as he watches me. He sees us. He'll never lift a hand in anger, unless it's in defense. That may not seem like a lot right now, but he'll be one more person in the world that knows how to love someone without violence or anger. That can and absolutely will save someone's life."
"Jesus, Liv." He gave a shuddering sigh. She put her drink aside and bent over him, wrapping her arms around him. He pushed up from her lap to make it easier on her. He looked at her intensely, stroking hair back from her face and drawing his fingers down her neck. "You…" He struggled for words. "You." He sighed. She smiled, daring to kiss him. Soft and sweet. "I promise-" He wet his lip, abruptly wiping his eyes. She tucked her face into his neck and kissed his pulse point. "I'm so-" He swore at his inability to articulate his feelings. "I love you."
They sat their with wet eyes awhile longer. Clinging. When she felt his weight starting to settle against her chest, energy flagging, she tugged at his shirt and nudged him towards the pillows.
"Come here." He pulled back, looking apologetic. "Shock will always bleed you dry." He lay down beside her, pinching the bridge of his nose as she took their empty glasses to the kitchen and locked up the apartment. She switched out all the lights before getting back into bed with him. He blindly fit his palm to her cheek. She held it in place as she turned her head, brushing her lips across his life line and then his wrist. "I want to believe there's a merciful god of some sort. I want to believe there's some sort of plan or purpose that clarifies every question we've ever asked." He hummed, squeezing her fingers.
"I'd almost rather the opposite. Entropy. Chance."
"No plan." He smiled again. "I need the time to iron out the wrinkles from all the self sabotaging." She giggled.
"I am. It's nice to know my idiocy is my own invention." Her fingers slipped from his to grip his forearm.
"There's nothing idiotic about fear."
"Tell that to my blood pressure." She huffed and rolled her eyes but it was good to see him smiling again. She leaned over, kissing the corner of his mouth before tucking herself under his chin, curling a leg around his thigh. He drug his fingers up and down her back. She was no expert, but his heart sounded fine to her. Steady. Even. She found herself getting bleary and sleepy just listening to him breathe.
"Has it ever occurred to you that I really like everything about you? Just because you don't like something about yourself doesn't mean I do." She mused.
"Once or twice." He tugged on the ends of her hair affectionately.
"I asked you to marry me."
"In your defense, you had been drinking." She snorted. They laughed.
"Should we not have a reception in a bar, then?"
"Probably not." She sighed, twisting her fingers in the hem of his shirt before sliding her hand under it altogether, pushing up to press against his chest, reverently cupping his grandmother's crucifix pendent. "You have such a beautiful heart." He mumbled against the top of her head. "I don't think I'll ever deserve it."
"Guess it's good you don't get to decide that." He carded his fingers through her hair and hummed. "Everywhere you've been and everywhere you'll ever go…they're inextricable from the version of you that I'm always falling in love with." He breathed deeply, holding her a little tighter.