Copyright© 2012 by Robert McKay
He could easily have asked himself, How did I get myself into this? But he knew. He looked into Toni's brown eyes, and knew exactly how he'd gotten himself into the position of asking for religious instruction. He loved Toni, and had ripped open scars on her soul that he hadn't even known existed, and wanted to know how she'd gotten into her present position. No, I don't want to know – I need to know.
His hand on her back seemed to moved of its own accord. It rubbed gently between her shoulder blades, sometimes squeezing a shoulder, sometimes dropping lower to massage her spine. He found it interesting. He and Toni had been together for a month and a little more, and it had never occurred to him that a couple could nestle together like this. There had been hints here and there, in their backrubs and cuddling on the sofa, but he'd missed them somehow. Now that he was experiencing it, he found that it was wonderful. It was another part of marriage – no, they weren't legally married, but they might as well be – and equally glorious.
"This is wonderful," he in fact said to Toni, their faces almost touching.
"It is." And she seemed to read his mind. "Had you ever thought that a man and woman could be together with nothing between them but love?"
He chuckled – softly, for there was no need for volume. "No, I never did."
"That's because you're a boy, 'Berto – my loving boy," she added, "but a boy still. I've been alive long enough now, though I'm not old, that I've thought about it." She paused, and her face grew pensive. "Would you mind if I told you something about my feelings for Garry?"
"No, Toni, not at all. I'd like to know more about him. He must have been a special man, to gain your love."
"He was." Her hands had been between them, between her knees, he thought, like a sleeping child, but now one rose up and brushed his cheek, and then reached around to cradle his head. "After he died, I thought I would go insane from missing him. There was the mental loss, and the emotional loss, and the physical loss, all twined together in one great pain. In a way, I was sore – bruised – from the loss. I got over the physical loss. But for years I would wake up at night, and reach out to his side of the bed ... that's your side, now, 'Berto ... and when I found it empty I'd cry desperately. I would have given anything to have Garry back with me."
She reached in with her mouth and kissed his lips, so lightly that it was as though a feather had touched him. "I got over that too, eventually. I still miss Garry, and I suppose I always will, but the tearing pain of it has passed. But I learned something through that. Being with someone who loves you and whom you love is far more important than mere physical contact. I love every aspect of our relationship, 'Berto, but what I truly love is you."
He nodded. Her eyes are so big, he thought. He felt as though he could dive into their brown depths and lose himself. "You're right. I'm a young man – your boy, as you call me," he said with a grin. "And we young men tend to think in physical terms. But it's you I love, Toni Leti – you, the person." His voice took on a note of surprise. "And that is something I never realized was love."
She smiled, the gentle smile that always gripped his heart. "I know you love me already. But if I didn't, hearing that would convince me. And I love you, 'Berto my lord." And her hand on the back of his head pulled him closer, and she kissed him again – firmly this time. His hand between her shoulders likewise pulled, and they clung together – without desperation, but as two lovers who are each sure of the other and need take no thought for anything but each other.
Eventually they separated, but just barely. "Toni?" he said.
"Yes, my lord."
"Last night ... last night you said that you hate yourself."
Her eyes dipped, looking down – or what would have been down had she been standing. "Yes." Even this close, he could barely hear her.
"Did you mean it?"
"Yes." Her eyes looked into his again, and he sensed how much of an effort that took. "I didn't even know it till it all spilled out. I'd crammed my ... my loathing ... down inside, where even I didn't realize it existed. But once it began to pour out, I couldn't stop it, and ... and I realized it was nothing but the truth. I do hate myself, 'Berto, for what I am. I was a good girl, a nice girl, as Angelina described me. And then in one moment of weakness I threw that all away and embraced a life that was everything I'd always been opposed to. I ran straight into the arms of sin, and so yes, I hate myself for that."
He felt the tears start out of his eyes at her confession; he felt the pain tearing at his heart. "Toni, I love you, even if you hate yourself. And I guess I'm not much of a judge of conduct or character, but I want you to think about that. I love you. And if I love you, what business do you have hating yourself?"
"'Berto, you don't understand—"
"That's right, I don't." The words could have been harsh, but he deliberately kept his voice soft. "Maybe I will, someday. But right now all I know is that you're driving thorns into your own heart, and it's so unnecessary. Look, I know we disagree on the Bible and sin and all that, and I know I have a lot to learn, which is why I asked you to teach me. But you don't have to kill yourself an inch at a time. If you're right, it won't ever please God, so what's the point? If I'm right, there isn't any God anyway, and again what's the point? And if that preacher yesterday is right, maybe you can go back to God, and in that case there really isn't any point in doing this to yourself, is there?"
"All I have, 'Berto, is my character. If I'm not good when no one's looking, then I'm not good."
"Stop. Let's look at that. I agree – your character is important. And if you're right about God existing and caring about how you live, then I suppose we have to call what you've done sin. But does that mean you have to punish yourself more than God has done?"
Her lips quirked in amusement. "Is the atheist giving the Christian lessons in theology?"
He chuckled at the thought. "I guess I am. Look, Toni, maybe I'm all wrong here. In all my life the most religious learning I've ever had was yesterday morning. But maybe I can see a few things a little more clearly than you can – not because I'm so much smarter, because I'm not, but because you're just too close to the problem."
"Too close to the problem?"
"You're the one who yielded to your body. I put it down to young hormones – I know about young hormones, Toni, I've got 'em. But you were there, and found yourself going against everything you believed, and that's all you could ever see. I'm standing back, a disinterested observer. Well, I'm not really disinterested – I love you, and I can't help but care about your pain. But I wasn't there, and I didn't have the realization come crashing in, and I can tell you, Toni – you're being harder on yourself than your God is. If you really were the way you think you are, wouldn't He have killed you instead of Garry?"
"How dare you—" She cut herself off, her hand covering her mouth to silence the words. He saw tears in her eyes, and moved to kiss her forehead. "I'm sorry, 'Berto. I still love Garry. I suppose I always will. I can't help it, anymore than I can help loving you. And..." She seemed to run out of words.
"I understand, Antonia Leticia. Your emotions thought I was attacking him." He brought his hand around to stroke her cheek. "And you reacted – exactly the way you should have reacted, if I had been attacking him. I wish I could have known him ... but he died when I was 13..."