148: Learning Curves

on February 1, 2008 in 05: The Weekend Shift

In Which Things Are Hard For Amaranth

Steff had to cry some more before we headed back to my side. I felt awkward and useless. I wasn’t very well equipped for comforting somebody… the only tool I really had in my repertoire was the hug, and I wasn’t very good at that.

“Subdued” was the only way I could describe her on the trek down the stairs and then back up the other set. She was so broken up over whatever had happened, and the prospect of losing Viktor. I felt bad for being relieved to see her like this, but I was; this was not somebody who would choose an hour of torture and murder fantasies over real romance.

Steff started slowing noticeably when we got to the fourth floor landing, going up on the girls’ side.

I remembered her reluctance to be on my floor before, and felt kind of stupid. Amidst all the big production of meeting Viktor, I’d temporarily forgotten the things that had seemed to trigger Steff’s weird behavior the most.

It probably was a good idea I hadn’t thought to mention Leda to Viktor, though. For one thing, I didn’t know what she actually had to do with it, if anything. After all, Steff had shown a similar reaction to sexual suggestions from me as she had to mentions of her encounter with Leda. For another, there was no telling how Viktor would react. Even if she were somehow responsible, that wouldn’t make physically assaulting her a good idea.

“You know, why don’t you just head back to Viktor?” I suggested. “I’ll be fine from here.”

“Okay,” she said.

I brushed her cheek with my lips, and she didn’t draw away. Seeing Steff so drained of life was as disconcerting as it had been to see her jumpy and fearful.

On the subject of jumpy and fearful, I almost jumped out of my skin the moment I set foot in my room… my bed seemed to explode as the covers were hastily kicked off.

“Amaranth!” I said, when I realized she’d been laying beneath the blankets. “Um, not that you’re not welcome, but… how’d you get in here?”

“Twoey let me in before she went to work,” Amaranth said, sitting up and trying to look composed. Her glasses were on my desk. She’d taken them off for effect before, but now their absence made her look younger, more vulnerable. “She said Steff was taking you to see Viktor, and I didn’t want to intrude.”

She shivered and hugged herself. There were long tracks scratched in her upper arms, and on her legs, where she’d dragged her fingernails over her skin. I’d seen her claw at herself like that a couple times before when she’d been upset. Seeing the marks now reminded me uncomfortably of the girl from Viktor’s closet.

“Um, Steff was really upset by something this morning,” I said. “She’s going to try some counseling.”

“Steff? Counseling?” Amaranth asked, her eyelids fluttering. The idea seemed to have shocked her out of her funk. “What for?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” I said.

“She always seems so… together,” Amaranth said. She dropped her gaze and chewed on her lip for a while. “I know she’s got pain… but… she seems to be dealing with it.”

“So, um… how’d your thing go?” I asked. It was pretty apparent that it hadn’t exactly gone swimmingly, but she didn’t seem inclined to open up about it on her own.

“Hmm?” she said, not looking up.

“Your ritual,” I said. “This morning.”

“Oh,” she said. “That.” She turned her gaze towards me, her already somewhat squinty eyes narrowing. It wasn’t a very common look for her. “I was told to mind my own business.” She said this in an almost snotty tone, in a way that sounded like I had told her this. “Can you believe that? Mother Khaele doesn’t even care that Barley’s wearing clothes. She says there’s more important issues and it isn’t my place to deal with them anyway.”

“Well… to be fair…” I started to say. I thought that perhaps Barley’s violent and sexually predatory behavior really might be a tad more important, but Amaranth cut me off with a furious glare.

“It’s a commandment she gave her children herself,” she said. “How can she not be angry about somebody flaunting it right out in the open, where people can see?”

“Well, if she’s more concerned by…”

“She also said that I’m too proud, and that I don’t listen to other people,” Amaranth said. She got up off the bed and began to pace. “And I don’t mean to disrespect my goddess, but I don’t think that’s true because I listen to you all the time, don’t I, baby?”

“Well, you’re there for me, anyway,” I said, trying to keep some good in perspective without denying something that was essentially spot-on. Amaranth was far better at dispensing advice than she was at listening to it. “I think that’s what really matters, but…”

“And… there’s more,” she said, closing her eyes just as tears began to spill out of the corners. “She says… she doesn’t know if I’m responsible enough to keep you. She thinks I’m taking on too much, with classes and work and a full-time relationship.”

“What… what do you think?” I asked.

“I don’t know, baby. We’re only two weeks into the year and it’s already so hard,” she said. “Work has been fun, and you’re great, but it seems like we’ve hit so many bumps…”

“We’re just getting started,” I said. “We’re learning.”

“Learning,” Amaranth said. She gave a little chuckle that was far from her normal tinkling laughter. “Learning… it seems like all I’m doing is learning. I mean, I go to my classes… and there’s just so many things I don’t know.”

“That’s not so bad, though,” I said. “I mean, didn’t you come here to learn in the first place?”

“Oh, I did!” Amaranth said. “I just thought that I’d know more of it already… I thought I would be the smart girl in the front row who had all the answers. I didn’t think I’d have to… you know, try so much.”

I couldn’t help feeling for her, because I loved her so deeply and because she was obviously hurting… but I kind of hoped the end result of the healing process would involve a more realistic assessment of herself.

The thing was, Amaranth really was smart… she’d taught me a lot of things in the short amount of time I’d known her and had demonstrated her knowledge on many subjects. It seemed like being smart wasn’t enough for her, though. She had to be the smartest.

So what did I do… say something bland and comforting, or go for a more directly honest approach?

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

“Well that’s kind of understandable,” I said. “You are doing a lot of things you’ve never done before. It’s only natural that you’d fail at some of them before you succeed.”

“But… I’ve never failed at anything before,” Amaranth said.

“How much have you ever tried?” I asked.

Amaranth’s cheeks reddened and puffed.

“You know, you were rather rude to Sooni this morning,” she said. She hopped off the bed and went over to the dresser where my paddle was, picking it up. “I think you need a couple good smacks, just to… to…”

Then, abruptly, she dropped the paddle and burst into noisy tears. Before I could react, she ran to me, practically tackling me as she flung her arms around me. She was saying something through the sobs, over and over again, but it took several repetitions for me to make out what it was.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

What could you say to something like that?

“I don’t think anybody does,” I said finally. “I know I don’t.”

She calmed down a bit, giving me a tight squeeze before letting go and stepping back. Her face, as usual, was perfect… no puffiness, no snotty nose. She could bawl her eyes out and still be achingly beautiful.

“I never realized before how easy I had it,” she said. “Well, I knew things came naturally to me but I never thought anything of it. I just assumed it would be the same once I left the valley.” She pursed her lips and then gave her head a shake. “No, that’s not right. I didn’t even assume it. I never gave it a thought. And then, the first weekend… well, everything seemed to fall into place. We found each other, and I had all the answers and I brought you out of your shell. Everything just seemed… right.”

“Right how?” I asked.

“Do you ever feel like life’s a story and you’re the main character?” Amaranth asked.

I nodded. I did know that kind of feeling, a little bit.

“That’s how I feel sometimes,” she said. “I mean, I don’t mean to sound conceited, but that first weekend… and then interesting things keep happening around me. It feels like I’m the center of everything, of our group… and that makes me feel like I should have all the answers. But I don’t. I was… I was… wrong about Puddy, and Barley. I keep making mistakes.”

“You’re here for me,” I said. I took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You love me. You don’t need to have all the answers.”

“I do love you,” she said. “I love you so much… and I’m so afraid all the time because of it. It’s so much easier to love everybody than it is to love you. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”

“Amaranth, you’re not going to,” I said, once again feeling woefully unequal to the task of giving comfort. They were just words. I meant the hell out of them, but I didn’t know how to make them sound like more than words. “I love you, too… I need you.”

“You need so much love, Mack,” she said, smiling an unusually thin smile. “I’m happy to give it… but…”

I felt a pinch in my heart. But? But what? Had Mother Khaele forbidden her to see me? Or were her own reservations overpowering her?

“But?” I prompted, cursing myself for not just allowing the sentence to hang.

“But are you happy with… the way we are, being owned?” she asked.

I didn’t have to think about it, but I did. My experiences with Viktor had given me plenty of evidence that this kind of thing really was in my nature, no matter how fucked up that was. He’d scared the crap out of me a couple times, but the way it had felt to be treated like that…

I nodded.

“Don’t you want to own me?” I asked.

“I… I don’t know if I’m the best owner for you,” she said.

“You mean you don’t think you’re perfect,” I said. “I don’t care. I still love you.”

“But what if you deserve better than I can give you?” she said.

“I can barely believe I deserve you,” I said. “And trust me, it’s not because I don’t see your flaws.”

“I’m not that bad,” Amaranth said, tugging at the corner of her lip. Okay, I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one for whom self-awareness was a work in progress.

“You’re beautiful and kind and generous and very well-read,” I said. “Can’t that be enough?”

She turned her head and gave a deep sigh, her massive chest rising dramatically.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she said. “I’m trying.”

“I know,” I said. I stepped forward and put my arms around her. I wondered why I hadn’t tried this before. Hugging Amaranth always felt natural and comfortable. Even if I initiated it, it felt like she was hugging me more than the other way around. I wondered if she felt the same about hugging me?

“So, what do you think I should do differently?” she asked when we pulled apart. She held onto my sides with her hands, in a kind of loose, arm’s length extended hug. “Since I apparently could stand to listen more often to my friends.”

“For starters, could you please stop trying so hard to control Two,” I said. That was a big one that had been grating on me for a while, and it was far more important than any issue that might exist just between the two of us. “She’s doing things for herself now. And no more trying to keep secrets from people for their own good. And… um, don’t order me to spend any more time with Sooni. That’s just not going to end well.”

“But… she seems so lonely,” Amaranth said.

“She is,” I agreed. “But that’s not something I can help her with.”

“What if all she really needs is love, though?” Amaranth said.

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” I said. I saw that she was about to say something, so I pressed on. “I know that you do, but even if it is… she can’t get it from me. I’m sorry. I can’t love somebody like her. I’m learning to feel sorry for her, but I still hate her.”

Irritation flashed across Amaranth’s face and she let go of me. She turned away, folding her arms beneath her chest. I started to reach for her, but she turned back to face me almost as soon as she’d finished turning away.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” she said.

I’d been fearing another outburst like the one where she’d went for the paddle, but her tone… her whole aspect… had changed. She’d got some of her confidence back and was now addressing me, owner to property.

I felt a tingle of anticipation and a rush of pride.

“I will not give you any more orders concerning spending time with Sooni,” she said. “But you will not express hatred of another person in my presence. Got that, baby?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, feeling a slow smile spreading across my face, which Amaranth returned. Her face seemed to glow. Her lack of glasses was becoming subtly sexy again.

It didn’t matter that she’d only given a trivial order with no sexual or humiliating aspects. I didn’t care that there were perfectly good reasons to hate somebody like Sooni, even if Amaranth couldn’t see them. Amaranth had climbed back into the saddle and grabbed the reins again.

We hadn’t got past our problems, but we were back on the right track.

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One Response to “148: Learning Curves”

  1. Alex says:

    Feel like a bullet was dodged there.

    Current score: 6