One Flesh
Chapter 17

Copyright© 2012 by Robert McKay

Toni

I love you, 'Berto! she cried in the depths of her heart. I love you with all my being, and I can't tell you so! It was that which hurt her. It was true that the memory of her failure, the stain of her sin, was always with her, but that faded before the simple fact that she couldn't tell the man she loved that she did love him. I can't! It was a wail in her mind. I want to so badly. She wanted to so badly that she had to bite her lip to keep from blurting it out. But I can't.

She thought she would never regain control. Her sorrow was worse than the most wrenching tears she'd ever shed. She didn't sob, but her heart broke within her and released its blood in the form of salt on her face. She held tightly to 'Berto, to her man, and felt for the first time in her life as though she were absolutely helpless, completely powerless against her heart and the world and that which she could not, must not, say or do.

Eventually she grew calmer. She never knew how long she'd cried against him, but she could feel with her cheek the sodden wetness of 'Berto's shirt. She straightened up, and used one hand to wipe her eyes and her cheeks. "I'm sorry, 'Berto. I'm not usually so weak."

He took her shoulders, and she knew he was trying to look into her eyes, but she kept her gaze on his chest. "Toni," he said, "you're not weak. Something's hurt you badly, and I said the wrong thing and touched the wound, and of course it hurts you. I just wish you'd tell me what it is."

"I can't, 'Berto."

"I wish you could."

She toyed with one of his buttons, her fingers moving of their own accord. "I wish I could too. I think you, of all people, would understand and would not jump down my throat. But it's too shameful. I can't tell you."

"I can't imagine you doing anything shameful, Toni."

"At one time I couldn't imagine it either, 'Berto. But it happened, and I've put it away in the past and gone on with my life, and I want to keep it in the past."

"Even if it hurts you like this?"

"It would hurt me worse to let it loose."

She could feel his hand stroking her hair, which was still loose from the night. And she knew that he was out of words, that he didn't know enough about her, or about grief, or about sin, to answer her. She wished he could. She wished that he could give her some words, some assurance, that would soothe her heart and give her the peace she hadn't known for seven years. But he was just a boy, and didn't have the training or the experience to counsel her as she desired.

But he's my man anyway, she thought. However little he can help me, I won't leave him for anyone else. I won't leave him at all... The hand that was playing with the button now spread itself against 'Berto's chest, and she forced herself to look up into his face. She knew she must look wrecked, the tracks of tears on her face, her eyes red from her sorrow, but she wanted to look at him, to see him. And somewhere in her heart she wanted him to see her too – as she really was, even if the rational part of her mind knew that too full a revelation was impossible. "'Berto, all I can tell you is that you've chosen a woman who has no hope. I live with despair every day. I'll try not to put that burden on your shoulders, but you need to know that I'm worthless, sinful. I'm a wicked woman, 'Berto, and if you want to leave me and find someone good..." Her voice choked and she couldn't continue.

He stroked her cheek with a thumb. "Toni, I will never leave you." He sounded fierce, though his voice was soft and his face had a tender expression. "You are not wicked. You are not worthless. I don't know where you got such ridiculous ideas, or why you hold on to them, but you're the best woman I've ever known. You're a sweet, kind, gentle ... caring woman." She wondered what word he'd decided not to use. "I don't know who hurt you so badly that you've come to see yourself that way, but whoever it was, I'd like to punch him in the mouth for what he did to you."

"No!" Her outburst startled her. And she realized she had to be calm, lest she blurt it all out. "'Berto, my lord, please – don't think of that. It's no one else's fault. No one hurt me. No one deserves your anger – except me. It's my fault I am what I am. I made choices that were horribly wrong, and now I have to live with the consequences. If you're going to be angry with anyone, be angry with me. If you're going to hit anyone, hit me."

"Toni, what are you saying!" She knew that the shock was at the thought of him striking her, and indeed she hadn't meant it literally. "Toni, I will never lay a finger on you. I'd rather cut off my own hands than hit you. I would rather die than hurt you in any way."

I wonder if he knows... But she chopped the thought off. It was enough that she loved him without any chance of seeing a return. She wasn't going to read her own feelings into someone else's words. "Then, 'Berto, we have nothing to worry about." She took a deep breath and placed her palm on his cheek, feeling the scanty stubble of a young boy's missed shave. She saw how his mustache was black, such as it was; it was so thin that from farther away it looked as brown as his hair. She saw how smooth his forehead was, and how there were almost no lines at the corners of his eyes. And she looked into the gray of his eyes and realized that she hadn't seen such compassion since Garry had last held her. "Roberto Vargas, I never thought you would hurt me, not on purpose anyway. Sometimes people who ... care about ... each other wind up hurting each other without meaning to. That will happen between us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. But I have no fear of you. And whatever happens, I am so glad I have you with me."


'Berto

Toni had made him some breakfast, and he'd eaten it, and then said he was going for a walk. That was one thing they didn't have in common – he liked walking, always had until he'd gotten so sodden with alcohol, and was enjoying it again now that he was free of the stuff. But Toni thought it was enough to walk from the car to the store, or wherever; walking wasn't something she commonly did for fun.

So Roberto set out with a few dollars in his pocket to tide him over if he got hungry or thirsty, and thought. And he came to no more of a conclusion than he'd been able to reach on other occasions. His mind was a muddle. He didn't know what he felt, how he felt, what or how he ought to feel...

He knew very little, in fact. He knew that he cared about Toni so intensely that it hurt. The thought of living without her was acutely painful. Whenever he tried to think about such a life he could only conjure up a vast black void. And yet he knew that couples who came together didn't always stay together – he'd known any number of guys who'd crowed about the love they'd found, and a few months later were crying at how it had ended. And then a few months later, they started all over again. And that frightened him to death.

So what do I do? he asked in despair. How do I make sure that Toni and I really are together forever? In one part of his mind he knew that when she promised to remain with him, she meant it, and would never renege. But in another part of his mind he remembered women who'd left their men. He knew that when he promised never to leave her, he meant it – and yet he knew of men who'd left their women.

And in the midst of all this unpleasant thinking, there was the perpetual question: What is it that I feel for her? If he could figure that out, he thought, everything else could take care of itself. But how could he figure it out?

For the first time he allowed himself to consider a word. Do I love her? And he didn't know. I'm 18 years old – what do I know about love? It was a question he could not have asked himself before he met Toni. But somehow, just by being herself, she'd opened his mind up to ideas that in his teenage arrogance he'd never even known existed. Maybe I do love her. But how do I tell?

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