|Moments after leaving Ryan’s apartment complex, my lap is met with Christian’s muscular arm. I barely acknowledge him as he clicks my seat belt in place. He doesn’t explain his eager and mindful gesture, but he doesn’t have to. I know my safety is important to him. A part of me wants to take comfort in his ability to still care for me, especially after everything he witnessed today, but I can’t. I don’t deserve his concern or sympathy. Not anymore.
By the time we reach the busy freeway, the tears finally stop flowing from my tired eyes and the ache in my chest and stomach subside. But a sudden numbness takes over my body, leaving me to stare out the window lethargic and motionless. I fixate on the cars passing across the interstate, letting the flashing lights blind my eyes. They open and close in a sort of calming rhythm, but the rest of me is suspended from movement.
The darkness surrounding us from the night sky is somehow encouraging my quiet temperament. It’s almost like a veil stabilizing my emotions, and I don’t want it removed anytime soon.
Christian respects my silence and let’s me be. I’m relieved. I don’t have the energy to speak even a mumble. Besides, I imagine he’s fuming on the inside after observing my dramatic goodbye with Ryan. I hate that he had a front row seat to that.
After we stop to get gas, and I make a quick run to the ladies room, Christian mumbles something to me. But I just stare at him dully with no desire to make sense of his words. Depression has creeped in and all I want is to return to our quiet, peaceful drive.
And for a while we do.
Later, I’m greeted with Christian’s affectionate hand at the back of my neck. I immediately close my eyes as he softly squeezes my tight, stiff muscles.
“You doing OK?” He asks, startling me with his deep, exhausted tone.
I open my eyes and present him a soft, fleeting smile. “Yeah.”
“You don’t have to pretend. I know tonight was hard for you.”
My heavy sigh agrees with him.
“It was so much harder than I was expecting. I’m sorry I couldn’t keep it together.”
His fingers begin to knead harder at the nape of my neck, and I welcome his satisfying touch with a soft moan.
“I knew it would be difficult for you, but I didn’t realize how hard it would affect me,” he confesses. “I’ve been trying to think of ways to bring you out of this depressed state.”
I gaze at him quickly, overwhelmed and puzzled by his compassion. “I feel like that’s the last thing you should want right now.”
“Why do you say that?” He asks, furrowing his brow.
“It couldn’t have been easy for you to watch me make-out with Ryan and then cry so long afterwards. You have every right to be hurt and angry with me.”
“You’re right. It hasn’t been easy. But that doesn’t mean I want you to suffer. No amount of anger or resentment could ever make me want to see you hurt like this. I already told you—I understand your need to be with Ryan, and I’ve accepted that we’re over.”
As painful as it is to hear Christian acknowledge our relationship demise, it’s exactly what I need from him. Because in order for me to completely move on, I need him to let me go.
“OK...well, maybe now we can discuss what’s next for us,” I consider aloud. “I really want us to remain friends...if that’s even possible.”
“Of course it‘s possible,” he insists, massaging my shoulder. “I realize we went weeks without speaking, but that needs to change. Weekly updates from now on. Agreed?”
His appealing enthusiasm coveys a sense of hope, lifting my spirits faster than I thought possible.
“Agreed.” I smile and then make a necessary suggestion. “But maybe we should set some boundaries.”
He cocks a brow and slowly removes his hand from my back. “Boundaries?”
I swallow my fears and force my sincere response. “I’m all in with Ryan, but that doesn’t mean my feelings for you have suddenly disappeared. I can’t hurt you ever again. I would never be able to live with myself.”
“Ally, I know where you stand. That’s all I need from you. For you to be honest with me. OK?”
“I can do that,” I say with conviction.
“Good. Then you won’t hurt me. That’s a promise.”
I nod my head, assuring him that I comprehend his vow to me. However, I’m not confident he can promise such a thing. Life is far to uncertain for that kind of faith.
“Have you talked to Ryan about us keeping a casual friendship?” I inquire, hoping to get his take on my boyfriends lax behavior.
I watch his jaw tighten as he scratches his chin. “He’s practically encouraging me to remain close, which doesn’t make any sense. He said he trusts me and that’s enough for him. I don’t know what to think.”
“I think it’s guilt,” I offer. “He should be concerned or at least uncomfortable, but because he feels guilty, there seems to be a drive to appease us both. His conscious is still troubling him.”
“You know him better than I do, so I’m gonna take your word for it. Whatever his reasoning, I’m not complaining. I’m just grateful you’re still in my life.”
His sweet smile brings me joy, but it doesn’t sway my pessimistic outlook.
“I guess I’m worried his trust will eventually fade and we’ll be left with difficult issues of our own.”
“I see. Well, why don’t you focus on what you can control. When are you seeing him again?”
I reach for my purse and pull out my phone. “In two weeks,” I answer tapping on the calendar app. After scanning and marking the dates for my future visit with Ryan, I notice today’s date and quickly absorb the significance of it.
“Christian—the art exhibit is tonight. Did you forget?”
“No.” He smiles, unexpectedly. “But I’m pleased you remembered. I debated for hours before I finally added that ticket to your Christmas present.”
“I thought it was really sweet of you to include it.”
Easing his head back against the seat, he glances my way, defeated. “I’m sorry you won’t get to use it.”
A pang of regret hits me. I feel awful Christian’s missing a special night at The Gallery. All because he was asked to help my boyfriend move. It’s not right.
“Hey, maybe we can still make it,” I suggest, eagerly.
“Nah, it’ll be over by the time we get home. It’s not a big deal. I just need to let the owner know I won’t be making the ceremony.”
I lean forward in shock. “Wait—there’s a ceremony?”
“Yeah, just a short one. My canvas was chosen to be displayed in an upcoming art gallery in downtown L.A. There transporting it first thing in the morning. I just wanted you to see it before the transfer.”
“Seriously! That’s amazing! Why didn’t you say something? Ryan would have an understood.”
“I know he would’ve, but it didn’t feel right leaving the three of you to move everything. You needed help.”
He’s right. We’d still be unloading if it weren’t for his contribution. His brawn was very much appreciated from all of us today.
I pat his beautifully defined bicep and grin. “You’re such a good friend. I’m really proud of you and you’re hard work. I’m just sorry I won’t get to see your incredible art piece.”
“You know what...” he says, thoughtfully. “Maybe you still can. Everyone will be long gone, but I have a set of keys that can get us in the building...You interested?”
“Yes.” I smile broadly. “Let’s do it.”
And just like that—a spark returns to his face.
My initial feeling about the drive home was a depressing one. Several hours later and our trip has become the exact opposite. The conversations are light and good-humored as we talk about the most random things. Like places we want to visit someday and places we’d consider living.
Later, it’s the impressive singing from Christian I find most amusing. I can’t stop smiling when he opens his mouth to sing.
I remember being impressed the first time I heard him; it was during our first shower together. Even though we were dressed in our swim suits, I was still nervous and apparently unaware of the raw talent and control in his voice.
Christian sings everything from old classics to pop to country. My favorite is his version of “Lean On Me.” Listening to him belt out to the radio is boosting my mood, and I think that’s exactly what he had in mind.
“Does your family know how good of a singer you are?” I ask, turning the radio down a little.
“My sister used to make me sing karaoke with her all the time.”
“No, it’s not. She has an unhealthy obsession and you can tell her I said that.”
“OK.” I giggle. “I bet she made you dance, too.”
Christian holds in a laugh as he grips the steering wheel with one hand. “Yep, all the time,” he admits, taking us on a sharp turn. “She’s bossing as hell, but I love her. And no, I’m not dancing for you. I gotta draw the line somewhere.”
Jokingly, I ask, “Is there anything you’re not good at?”
“Hmm...” His playful gaze catches mine. “Keeping a girlfriend.”
My mouth gapes open, but then quickly shuts to form a frown.
“That’s not funny,” I scold him.
“Come on.” He chuckles. “It’s a little funny.”
Even though I’m more than ready to disagree with his interpretation of funny, his lopsided grin convinces me otherwise.
“Fine, it’s a little funny. But only because you’re cute,” I point out.
“I’ll take it.” He winks.
Raising a brow in curiosity, I ask, “Why do I get the feeling this rendition of car karaoke is a one time thing?”
His lips curve into a smile. “It’s not often I burst out in song—so yes—you’re receiving special treatment tonight.”
I play with the strings of my sweatshirt, forming a bow with the start of my next question. “I’m guessing no promises on future performances?”
“You guessed correctly.”
I mess with radio until I find a song I like. I decide it’s time to make requests, especially if this is my last chance.
I catch the beginning of “Pumped Up Kicks” and join him at his request. We sound ridiculous, but that’s what makes it so entertaining. Singing with Christian makes me feel alive...and fearless...and ready for anything.
It’s just after midnight when we arrive at The Gallery. Our drive into the back parking lot is slow, as if Christian is suddenly suspicious. Once he parks the car a good distance from the building, he stares out the front window for a moment.
“Everything OK?” I ask, observing his peculiar behavior.
He quickly leans over me, opens the glove department and pulls out his gun and badge.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, suddenly panicked and confused.
“I’ll be right back. Stay in the car.”
His departure is quick and leaves me full of questions and worry.
I stare out the window, curious, watching Christian slowly approach a dark figure by the back entrance. Once my eyes adjust, I’m able to observe a man in tan coveralls and black boots. He has something in his hand—a tool of some kind—and appears to be using it to pry the door open.
Christian keeps his gun at his side, pointed down, until the burly man notices him and starts to lunge his way with a crowbar.
I crack my window to hear the heated conversation, but I’m too far away to make any of it out.
With his gun pointed, Christian urges the guy to drop his tool, beckoning with his hand. The flustered man quickly freezes his movements, drops the crowbar, and lifts his hands to plead with him.
The dire situation should have my heart racing, but I’m surprisingly calm. Observing Christian in his element and watching him respond with confidence instills a new admiration in my highly impressed and slightly aroused mind. The idea that he’s been trained with precision and has skills to protect those around him is incredibly appealing.
I open the car door and stand behind it, watching them both talk in what looks like a peaceful manner. Both of their frames are relaxed and stable as they exchange a handshake.
I peer up at the indigo sky for a moment, taking in the cool California breeze sweeping my face. I’m reminded of the painting Christian gifted me for my birthday. His artistic hand created beautiful shades of blue swirled together, expressing the story of us and our relationship. Much like the sky tonight, the intricate details inspire me. Sadly, his masterpiece still sits in front of my closet, waiting to be hung properly by my brother.
A gust of wind draws my attention to a plastic bag floating towards the building. I notice the exchange between Christian and the compliant suspect is over. I follow the man with a perplexed gaze as he walks away without his crowbar. It never occurred to me that Christian could let him go with just a warning, but that’s exactly what his authority allows.
After checking the back door, Christian tucks the gun in the back of his jeans and heads back, surprised to see me standing outside his vehicle.
“I told you to stay in the car,” he scolds, extending a stern look my way.
“I know, but that guy didn’t look like a real threat and you clearly had everything under control.”
As soon as I’m within reach, I’m lifted at the waist in haste and placed on the passenger seat by Christian’s strong, anxious hands. My heart jumps from his impulsive reaction.
“Listen to me,” he says, soft and grave, collecting my face with his hands. “If I’m ever in a position where I have to draw my gun, you absolutely must do what I ask. There can be no buts or excuses. No debate or reckless behavior. Do you understand?”
I nod my head slowly and his careful hold on me is released.
“It’s not your job to protect me, Christian,” I clarify.
“Protecting you is everything to me,” he admits, gravely. “But you’re right. It’s not my job. It’s who I am. And that’s never going to change.”
I take his calloused hand and gaze up at his serious, distressed face. “Why are you upset? Nothing happened. I’m perfectly safe.”
“Because I know how quickly a seemingly secure situation can turn into a deadly one.”
I wait for him to elaborate, but no such luck. It’s the one area he won’t open up to me about. He’s always avoiding work related subjects at all costs, but that’s no longer something I can just let go.
“Is there a specific incident you’re referring to?” I inquire.
“Come with me,” he requests, tugging my hand and ignoring my question. “Let’s go inside.”
After I step down from the car, my voice breaks as I ask, “Why can’t you just talk to me? I can handle it.”
His face softens. “I know you can. It’s not about that. I just like to keep work separate from everything else in my life.”
His refusal to discuss such a big part of his life really hurts. For some reason it bothers me more now than when we were dating. It’s like I can suddenly see things more clearly and from a different perspective, which is why I’m not giving up. His mental health is too important to me.
The moonlight shines down upon us as we head towards the front entrance, making it easier for me to see and think. His stride picks up as I push further with my interrogation.
“Do you talk to your mom about work?” I ask, following him around the corner of the building.
“No, and she understands why. Being in law enforcement herself gives her plenty of insight. She gets it.”
“OK, but do you talk to anyone...at all?”
Pulling a set of keys from his pocket, he replies, earnestly, “Ally, I promise I’m fine. We have counseling available if I ever need it. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Once we reach the glass door entrance, I rest my hand on his chest and incline my head. “I’m always going to worry about you. No matter what. So get used to it.”
With a warm smile, he opens the door. “Good to know.”
I step into the gray building, struggling to adjust my eyes in the darkness. I can see the outline of the large fountain, but that’s it. Christian wanders off to find the light switches and eventually flips the majority of them on.
I trace my hand along the bowl of the fountain, taking in the musky scent of the water. It’s a little surreal to be back at the place we first met. So many things went wrong here. Sam caught her mom cheating, Ryan showed up unexpectedly with Natalie and was quick to reprimand me for being irresponsible, and later, I was mortified when Christian escorted me out in handcuffs.
But the night was also magical. When I finally met the alluring shadow over my shoulder, everything changed. Christian was charming and mysterious, but also very attentive. He quickly invested in me, and I relished in his approach. Ryan was no longer the center of my world. I suddenly had options. Specifically, one very enchanting option.
Given our history, I can’t help but feel mushy inside as Christian approaches me. He has the same swagger and confidence as the first night I met him, and it makes me wonder if he’s feeling sentimental as well.
“You ready?” He asks.
My look turns shy as his grin widens.
“Lead the way.”
With a flirtatious smirk and a cock of the head, he gestures for me to follow him. I move along in delighted obedience, trying my best not to blush.
“So was that guy trying to break in or what?” I wonder aloud.
“Yeah, he had some crazy story about the owner stealing one of his paintings. I think he was high and confused.”
I shake my head and stare pensively his direction.
Detecting my silent inquiry, he continues, “He seemed like he could use a break, so I let him go with a warning.”
“I figured as much. I hope he was grateful.”
It takes me a moment to realize I’m in a building full of art—and as Christian escorts me, I don’t even bother glancing at any of the pieces in the room. My focus remains on him. I want to save all of my feelings, thoughts and observations for his painting.
“I should probably mention that I painted this while we were still together. So don’t get the wrong idea,” he warns, lightly bumping my shoulder with his harder, well sculpted one.
“I won’t,” I insist, hiding my smirk.
His feet suddenly halt in front of a red velvet rope, clearly meant to section off his painting. I find Christians name on a sign hanging to the right of the canvas. The title reads: FAITH.
He removes the rope so I can take a closer look.
I quickly take in the beauty of the gray and blue hues. The top and bottom of the painting are covered in clouds, all intertwined and raging like a storm. When I examine it further, I notice two faces concealed in the clouds, both resembling a side profile. The female is looking down, lips open and seductive. A trail of one tear lingers from her cheek. The face of the male is looking up, but his mouth is closed, and his eyes are soft and inviting.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, thoughtfully. “Can you explain it to me?”
“It’s a vision of what’s to come. The man is waiting patiently until he can touch the woman he loves again. She loved him in a way that completed him, but the woman struggled with her inner demons and panicked. She realizes it’s too late to save his heart and her cry is an ongoing battle with her emotions. But what she doesn’t know is the man can end her suffering, if she would only have a little faith in him.”
My heart breaks from the not so subtle visual Christian has presented me with. His vision actually became reality. He expressed his fears and they came to true. And now, his interpretation is creating doubts in my mind. It’s making me ask myself why I didn’t put more faith in him. Why did I give up on him so easily when I was perfectly content?
“So what do you think?” He inquires, fidgeting with his hands.
“It’s very imaginative and more technical than anything I’ve seen from you, but it’s also heartbreaking. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, and I wish I could say they eventually end up together.”
Bombarded with confusion and heartache, my body releases an enormous sigh. I have to peer to the ground because the more I gaze at the painting the more tension I feel growing inside me.
Christian takes note of my affliction. “What is it? What has you flustered?”
“You.” I explain, firmly, sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the ground in front of his painting. “I can’t do this. This casual friendship we both want is not working. Because the way you’re making me feel right now is wrong and confusing.”
His pause is long and awkward as he sits on the floor in front of me, matching my frame and somber face.
Rubbing my knee, he pleads, “I’m sorry I upset you. That was not my intention.”
I meet his apologetic gaze and tilt my head. “I know that. But maybe you could be less transparent with your feelings, because I’m really struggling to make sense of mine.”
”Would it help if I told you I was seeing someone?” He asks, soft and curious.
“What?” I gasp. “Are you being serious right now?”
“I am. We’ve only gone out a couple times, but I think it’s going really well.”
I’m unable to speak, flabbergasted from Christian’s shocking revelation. How is he just now telling me this after spending the entire day with me? I swallow the lump in my throat and attempt to make words.
“I don’t—um...wow, that’s uh—good for you.”
“You sound shocked.”
“Just a little bit,” I admit, sheepishly.
It’s been a month since we broke up. Even though I want this for him, it’s still hard to hear. And it’s weird to picture him taking interest in someone else.
Clearing his throat, he speaks fondly. “Her name is Tess. She’s from the Philippines and doesn’t speak a lot of English, but she’s bright and picking up on it fairly quick.”
“Where did you meet?” I ask, imagining how beautiful she must be.
“I was dropping off some old clothes and other odds and ends at the Salvation Army. She was there looking for a table and chairs to furnish her apartment. We hit it off quickly despite the language barrier, and I ended up helping her with her purchase.”
“Helped her how?” I ask, tentatively.
“I loaded her furniture into her truck and then unloaded it once we got to her apartment.”
“That was nice of you,” I mumble, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach. My heart can’t take any more new information. So many disturbing scenarios are racing through my brain, and it’s manifesting unnecessary pain.
“Can you take me home now?” I ask, twitching to flee. “It’s really late, and I’m pretty tired.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Christian offers his hands to help me stand. Once I’m up and balanced, I retreat towards the entrance in a steady pace. But I don’t get far.
In unexpected affection, I’m scooped up at the waist. I squeal as my Ex spins me around, suddenly flushed with curious interest. My smile holds as he sets me down.
“You don’t get to be mad at me,” he explains, meeting my eyes with earnest contact. “Not after choosing him.”
The sting of his words cause me to push out a breath in defense. “I’m not mad, Christian. I’m just surprised. It’s gonna take time for me to get used to it.”
His comforting hold diminishes and a slight grimace appears.
“Trust me, I get it. Seeing you with Ryan tonight was no picnic.”
Color rises to my cheeks as my heart erupts with guilt.
“I’m sorry. We should’ve been more sensitive.” I pause my outward thoughts, weighing internally whether or not I should say more. Nothing I say feels good enough.
“No, I’m glad you didn’t try to hide it from me. That’s worse. I needed it to rip off like a bandaid. Painful but quick...“ He places a hand to my shoulder. “But I know you’re different. That’s why I wasn’t quick to tell you about Tess.”
“I can understand that.” My voice turns softer. “Thank you for telling me. I’m glad I know.”
“Of course.” He drops his hand from me and grins. “Let’s get you home.”
The drive is quiet and reflective. I peer out the window in a daze, struggling to make conversation. Our late evening has exhausted me. Christian seems to lack a verbal opinion too. His only words are a quick, friendly goodbye.
“Get some rest,” he insists. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Night, Christian,” I mumble, dragging my legs out of his SUV. “Thanks for the ride.”
I head to my bedroom and collapse on my bed, phone attached to my hand. I send Ryan a text and wait anxiously for a response.
I try not to think about Christian and his subjective painting as I wait, but it’s hard. Partly because the pain of letting him go still blazes through me. The other part has to do with his passion and vulnerability. Even though it affected me in a painful way, I still love his painting. I love that he was brave enough to express his feelings and brave enough to let me see them.
My cell starts to ring and vibrate, and I jump in surprise.
“Hey, I wasn’t sure if you’d still be awake,” I say, relieved.
Pleased to hear from me, Ryan answers, “It’s so good to hear your voice. I’m already missing it terribly...Are you just now getting in?”
My head whirls with anxiety. I don’t want him to be upset that I spent extra time with Christian, but I’m not going to lie about it either.
“Yeah, we stopped at The Gallery to see Christian’s painting. He wanted me to see it before it’s moved tomorrow.”
“Uh, OK,” he mumbles, slowly. ” I sense tension in his voice as he continues. “Is it really that special?”
“Yes. Apparently, he bailed on a special ceremony meant for him tonight. He decided to help you move instead.”
“I had no idea. He should’ve said something.”
“I agree. You should talk to him about it.”
“I will. Is there anything else you want to tell me?” He asks, carefully.
“Are you mad, babe?” I ask, worried.
“No, sweetie. I’m not mad. I’m actually impressed with your honesty.”
“Oh,” I mumble, suddenly proud of myself. “Did you know Christian has a girlfriend?”
“He didn’t mention the word girlfriend, but he did say he met someone.” His voice grows more curious with his next question. “How do you feel about that?”
“Honestly, it’s a little weird, but I’m happy for him...Why didn’t you tell me he was seeing someone?”
“Because it seemed like something you should hear from him...Listen, I never expected your feelings for him to fade overnight. So if you’re hurting, we can talk about it. I won’t judge or get upset with you.”
“I’m fine. Really. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Alright...Can you do me a favor?”
“I messaged Sam tonight to see how she was doing and by accident she sent me a text meant for someone else. Something about it didn’t sit well with me and I’m concerned. Maybe you can check in with her tomorrow.”
“Really? What did her text say?”
“It said: I’m not really into that sort of thing, but I could be swayed. Tell me more...And she added a wink emoji at the end.”
“Whoa,” I gasp, quietly. “That’s strange.”
“Yeah...My thoughts exactly.”
“I’m on it.”