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A Clean Break

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
You and your baby had some words today
'Til not another word was left to say
I see that grin boy
Maybe you think you'll win boy
Until the sun goes down and once again boy

One lonely night
One lonely night
That's all it takes to
Completely break you
-- REO Speedwagon
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The door closed and he was gone.

He was shaken, though no one would know it to look at him. He'd done this with women before; it was nothing new to him. This was no different.

It wasn't until he was in his car that he realized the significance of what had just passed between them. It was what he wanted, really, it was for the best. She was too serious. Too passionate about their relationship. If only she could have relaxed and enjoyed it for what it was, two people having fun, passing time together. That just wasn't her way, though. She had to analyze everything, give everything a label and a purpose; she wanted a commitment that he would never be able to give her.

He drove home and tried to remind himself how happy he was now, to finally be free of her. As he unlocked his door, he told himself that she was too clingy, though the argument was futile. She tried to manipulate me, he insisted, while he fixed himself a drink, though he knew it wasn't true. I'm better off without her, he reasoned, when he collapsed on his bed.

I don't need her.

I have never needed her.

For the next two hours, he stared at the ceiling while the debate raged on inside him.

*****

Alone, reeling, Carol picked up her drink with trembling hands and finished it. It had finally happened. What she'd imagined, what she'd feared for months: It was over. She sat and watched the sun go down as the loneliness seeped in. The phone rang and she stared at it, wondering if it could be Doug, calling to say he was sorry, to ask if he could come back.

"Hello?"

"Carol? Is that you? It's Susan."

"Oh. Hi."

"Sorry to bug you at home. I can't find Mrs. Burrows' chart anywhere."

"Who?"

"Mrs. Burrows, the 90-year-old lady with dementia. I can't find it."

Carol's voice was shaky. "Susan...you know, right now I don't even know...."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing's wrong," she asserted and then silently began to cry.

"Carol, are you okay?" No answer. "Carol?"

"Oh, God, Susan." Carol began sobbing, speaking incoherently. "He left. I can't believe it. He just left. No explanation, nothing.  After all this time, he walked out as if we'd meant nothing to each other."

"Doug?"

"Yeah."

"What do you mean, 'he left'?"

"Things have been going downhill, they've been really terrible lately.  I asked him to come over, to talk. All I wanted to know was where we stood." Carol wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "The minute I asked him to tell me how he felt, he left. He said he couldn't and he just left. It's over."

Susan sighed, not knowing how to help. "Do you want me to come over after work?"

"No. No. I need some time, I need time to think. I gotta go." Carol said goodbye and hung up.

God, she thought, what am I going to do without him?

*****

During their first few months together, he made his way into her heart a bit more every day. It was the little things he did that she adored. Things like sneaking up on her in the hospital and lifting her hair up to softly kiss the back of her neck, then walking away silently, leaving her aroused and breathing hard. The way his hair fell over his forehead in the breeze. His crooked grin. Leaving her notes telling her to meet him in the basement storeroom for lunch and some time alone. Slowly but surely, she was falling in love. And she spent an inordinate amount of time wondering if he felt the same way.

Carol believed he cared. Her friends, on the other hand, felt very differently. Haleh tried to warn her one day when they were having lunch.

"Carol, be careful...I hear he's seeing some woman who lives on the Gold Coast."

"Haleh, really. Does he seem like the kind of guy a rich woman would hang out with? He barely makes his car payment every month," Carol countered. "Hand me the salt."

"It's just what I hear," Haleh warned, shaking her head in dismay.

The longer she dated him, the more people would begin dropping hints, talking about how he flirted with the pediatric nurses or what the latest gossip was.

Even Wendy couldn't resist. "It's not that I want to hurt you," she whispered confidentially, "really, but Joan in pediatrics said that Dr. Ross well, you know, *did it* in the parking lot with one of the nurses just last month."

"Oh, god, Wendy, c'mon!"

"It's just what I've heard," Wendy sighed.

After a while, Carol started having doubts as well. Her birthday came and went without even a card from him, though he apologized profusely, telling her it had just slipped his mind. There were times, too, when he forgot about dates they'd planned, about dinner parties he was supposed to go to.

Eventually, they started going out less and less and he started drinking more and more. He'd come to her apartment late at night, make love to her, and then when she'd awaken in the morning, he'd be gone. Had she listened to her better sense, six months into the relationship when he started changing, she would have ended it. If she'd taken care of it then, she wouldn't have had to endure the anguish of the last 18 months, the on-again, off-again roller coaster he'd subjected her to.

Her mother's words reverberated in her ears: "What do you mean, he's not coming for dinner? Don't you have any respect for yourself? Get rid of him, Carol, he's no good." How could she explain it to her mother? What could she say?

"Mama, it's the way he makes me feel when I'm with him."

"It's the way he looks at me when we're alone, the words he whispers."

"Mama, it's because I'm in love with him."

It would have been better to have called it quits the first time he was unfaithful to her. And that first time was so painful.

*****

She'd expected him earlier that night. He had promised to come over right after work, and she waited for him until around 10 p.m. Carol called his apartment, then the hospital, but he was nowhere to be found. Finally, she called his pager number, but he didn't respond. She was worried, but figured something must have come up. Finally, she crawled into bed about 11:30.

He called her a little after midnight. "Hey, how are you?"

"I'm okay," she answered in a drowsy voice, looking at her clock. "I paged you. Doug, it's late, where have you been? I thought you were coming over after work."

"I got held up, but I'd like to come over now, spend a little time with you."

"Where are you?"

She heard him chuckle. "I'm right on your corner, I can see your door from here."

He was so good-natured, it was hard to stay upset at him. "Well, since you're so close, come on over."

Within minutes, there was a quiet knock on her door. She answered it and he grinned. "Hey, Carol, I'm glad you were still up."

"Actually, I wasn't. But come on in." After he took his jacket off, Carol put her arms around his neck and kissed him. "You've been drinking, Doug."

He held back, a bit, though he smiled at her. "Oh, I just had a drink on my way home. I needed to relax, unwind, you know?"

"Yeah." She was unconvinced, still wondering what could have delayed him so long.

"Uh, Carol, I'm kind of uh, grubby, from work, can I shower...first?"  His eyes were melting her, drawing her in.

"Sure," she said with an alluring smile. "Can I join you?"

He hesitated. "Uh, well, not now, thanks, but I'll make it quick, okay?"

"Okay," she answered, surprised. He'd always loved showering with her before.

******

He was particularly sweet and attentive that night, and after they'd made love, she got up to use the bathroom. She carefully stepped over the clothes he'd left there. When she was through and she washed her hands, she looked down again to make her way out and she stopped and stared. There was a mark on his boxers, a red mark. Her stomach flipped as she bent down to pick them up. It was unmistakable. There was lipstick on them. Someone else's lipstick.

Carol felt nauseous. Where had he been, what had he done tonight? She dropped them in place, and walked back to her bed numbly with her head down so he couldn't see her face, couldn't see the tears she blinked back.

She lay in bed, ignoring his outstretched arm, rolling over, away from him, keeping her back to him. Her posture tipped him off that something had drastically changed within the last few minutes. Usually, she'd cuddle afterward, her hands would play gently on his skin, her breasts would lay against his side and chest. He wanted to ask what was wrong, but he was afraid to hear her answer. He ventured forth nonetheless.

"Hey, Carol, you with me?"

Carol decided she was brave enough, and hurt enough, to ask. "So, was I like...act two tonight or something?"

Doug was quiet for a moment, and then scoffed, shaking his head.   "Carol...."

"Can't you answer me?"

"I don't know what you want me to say," he said, evading her question.

"What I want is the truth."

"Well, the truth is that I'm here...with you...tonight."

Her voice cracked. "So, Doug, how did the lipstick get on your boxers?"

He looked at her, and realized he'd been snagged. "Carol...I can explain...." Then there was no explanation, there was nothing he could say.

Carol turned to face him. "Did you...were you with another woman, Doug?" Her panic was barely detectable.

"You know," he said, concocting a quick lie, "I...I...there's someone else I do see, sometimes, but we're not serious." He couldn't tell her, couldn't admit that he'd met a total stranger in the bar, that he went to her place and had sex that lasted ten minutes. Ten hollow, empty minutes.

She was composed now, because she knew if she lost it, she'd scream, yell and throw things. She didn't want him to see her lose control that way. "Define 'see,' please."

"C'mon, Carol," he cajoled.

Carol, angry now, sat up in bed. "So you're sleeping with her? Should we...are we 'seeing' other people? Are we 'serious'? Is it okay if I 'see' other men, and then come to your bed afterwards? I just...I don't know what you want, Doug, you have to tell me. Because I haven't 'seen' anyone since you and I started dating, and I don't want to feel that I'm missing out on anything."

Doug sighed, knowing now that any explanation would sound lame. "You know...I don't know, we're not, you know, you and I never said we were in an exclusive relationship or anything."

His words slashed her. What did he think this was, did he think she went to bed with every man she dated, did he think she let every man into her life like this?

"Get out, please. Get out now."

Doug retreated, walking to the bathroom and dressing quickly. He didn't stop back to say goodnight, she just heard the door close. Carol huddled in her bed, confusion swirling around her.

How could he possibly come to me, she thought, to my bed, after being with another woman? Thinking about it made her skin crawl. She ran through their evening, their intimacy, and the things he had said, things he did, trying to figure out what it was she lacked to make him seek pleasure elsewhere, trying to find some reason for why he'd do such a thing. As she replayed the kisses and caresses he'd covered her with tonight, her mind began the torturous game of filling her with self-doubt.

Just an hour ago, it seemed they would spend a wonderful night together making love. Carol got undressed and waited in bed for him, smiling as she listened to him whistling in the shower. He'd walked out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist, drops of water dotting his chest and shoulders. One look in his eyes and she had a rush of desire, seeing his blatant hunger, the arousal already there.

"You want some company?" he asked quietly.

"Of course," she answered, pulling the covers back to let him in.

He joined her and she recoiled from the coolness, the wetness of his body.

"Oh, Doug, you're all wet!"

"Come on, Carol, don't be a wuss. Come back here, warm me up," he teased, and she did.

He gazed at her and she looked at him, smiling, welcoming his body on her own.

"Did you miss me?" he asked, his eyes half open, a slight grin on his face.

She reached out, holding him to her, wishing she could lock him into her body forever.

"Yes, I did. I'm glad you're here."

~ Did her arms hold him as tightly as mine tonight? ~

Doug's confident hands stroked her, arousing her, holding her breasts as his mouth played upon them.

"Oh, I love this," she whispered as she pushed her breasts into his face, losing herself to his languorous touch, to his hot mouth.

A chuckle eased out of his throat. "So demanding. Impatient tonight?" he murmured, as his fingertips glided over her again.

~ Did her breasts fill his hands? Was her skin softer? ~

Carol let her body go, let him take her wherever he wanted to, and in her arousal, made love to him, kissing and sucking a gentle path down his neck, his torso, tugging at the towel, pulling it away from his body, taking him, hard and throbbing into her mouth.

"Ah, Carol, that's sweet."

~ Did her lips follow the same trail as mine? ~

Doug tipped her chin up, guiding her back up to his lips, kissing her gently. "Are you ready for me? Let me see...oh, yes, you are." His fingers dipped into her pool of wetness and hers followed his lead, playing upon the hard knot of her clitoris and her flared inner lips. "Keep touching yourself, I want you to come so I can feel it when I'm inside of you."

~ Did she get wet like me at the sound of your voice? ~

Unable to hold out any longer, Carol laid back and opened her legs to him, accepting his hardness within her softness, moaning at the way he teased her with his body, at the way he started slowly and worked toward their climax.

"I'm going deeper now. Feel that? I love being deep inside. Can you take it?" He tested her limits then, sinking fully into her, watching her arousal grow at his words and the feel of him.

~ Did he make love to her like he does to me? Whisper those same words to her? ~

"Carol," he whispered, "I love the way you move underneath me."

~ Did she please you the way I do? ~

"I can feel it, you're close." When her orgasm overtook her, she fought the urge to close her eyes and looked up at him, seeing the satisfaction on his face. "There it is, Carol...come...enjoy it. You feel so wonderful." He smiled at her and quickened his pace, relishing the feel of her muscles as they pulsated around his hardness.

~ Did she look like I do, did she breathe your name when you made her come? ~

As she lay alone in her bed and pulled the covers up, her hands came across his towel, still damp from the shower. Now she knew why he had showered beforehand, why he wouldn't let her join him. "Oh, Doug. How could you have done this to me?" she asked.

But he was long gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
They say it's darkest right before the dawn
But oh those darkest hours can be so long
You're feelin' strong boy
Tellin' yourself she's wrong boy
But how much longer can this night go on boy?
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For several days, they managed to avoid being together at the hospital, though it wasn't easy. He sensed her unwillingness to be near him and asked every other nurse for assistance with procedures.

One day, Mark spotted him walking into the lounge. "Hey, Doug, got a minute?"

Doug held the door open for him, "Yeah, what's up?"

"I thought I'd ask you that same question. What's going on with you and Carol? You guys have hardly said three words to each other all week."

"Ah, you know, nothing really."

What Doug couldn't tell him, or tell anyone, was that he missed Carol terribly, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself otherwise. It was eating at him, being away from her, though he couldn't put his finger on the reason why. He'd still go out at night, still go home with a woman, but things weren't quite the same.

It began to eat at her, too, for different reasons. She wondered how this could have happened. Did she do something wrong, did he prefer a different kind of woman? He had no trouble attracting them, nor did he have trouble spotting the beautiful ones, as she would see his eye follow various forms as they walked past his line of vision. Maybe it was the way she made love, she thought, maybe she didn't please him.  Night after night she'd lay awake, troubled, wanting desperately to call him or stop by his apartment to see him.

He, however, was the one who crumbled first, going to her apartment one evening and, after pacing in the hallway for several moments, knocked on the door.

"Doug...what are you doing here?"

"I just...I was...I wanted to...." He stopped and ducked his head, smiling to himself. "I just came by to talk."

"Oh. C'mon in." She opened the door and turned off the television, giving him her full attention.

"Carol, I just came by, I...I just, I was thinking about you...." He tried putting on a contrite expression, hoping it would work.

Carol raised her eyes to his, not allowing him to escape. "Tell me this: Why did you come to me, make love to me, after you'd slept with someone else? How could you do that to me, humiliate me that way? How could you have made love to me the way you did that night, said the words you said to me...." Tears spilled over her lashes, but she persevered, knowing if she stopped talking now, she'd never have the nerve to continue again. "You told me how wonderful I felt...God, Doug, how could you? Didn't you have the opportunity to get off with her?"

"Carol, no, no...I don't know what I can say to make it up to you, I don't know...." Doug walked to her. He stroked her cheeks and held her face in his hands while he wiped the stray tears away. "You do feel wonderful to me. I did want to make love to you that night. What I did...it's inexcusable, I'm sorry. I don't know why it happened."

He closed his eyes as he neared her, his lips opened slightly, anticipating her.

"No. Don't," she whispered, withdrawing.

Doug went no further; neither did he retreat. He spoke softly, his eyes lulling her, drawing her in. "Tell me to leave and I will."

She put her hands over his, wanting to remove them, needing to free herself from him. "I can't....you break my heart, Doug."

His voice was so quiet, then, so low. "Let me fix it, Carol."

And then, her lips were responding to his, her body molded to him and she betrayed herself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
If I could melt your heart
We'd never be apart
Give yourself to me
You are the key
-- Madonna
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After that night, he tried in his own half-hearted way to be faithful to her, to stay away from other women, though he wasn't always successful. Things would be okay between them for a while, then she'd make a remark about their future and he'd panic, thinking she was becoming too attached, too serious. Or he'd find himself looking into her eyes while they made love, choking back tender words that came from a hidden place within himself, a place he never knew existed. The words and thoughts and feelings, the idea that they would grow to need each other, frightened him. Then he would go out and find someone to be with to prove that he didn't need her, to prove that he could live without her.

He learned to be more discreet over the next year, learned to hide things from her. Carol would find out, though, about some of the women, some of the indiscretions and would swear she'd have nothing more to do with him. Promise herself that it was the last time she'd put up with him. They'd separate, they'd both be miserable, and then just when they were convinced it was over, one of them would break the silence and seek the other out.

Carol hated herself, hated her inability to be free of him.

She began noticing a pattern emerging in his visits to her. He came to see her most frequently when he was troubled. Being in his company on those nights was disconcerting to Carol. His humor and gentle manner were gone and he was often quiet and remote.

On one such night, Doug had come to see her before midnight and had that same distant look on his face. He looked tired and weary, and it was obvious something was on his mind. Carol offered to give him a back rub, and he readily accepted. As he relaxed on her bed, she rubbed and massaged his strong back until he moved to roll over.

"Come here." He took her into his arms and kissed her tenderly. "Can I have you tonight?"

"If I can have you." Her eyes sparkled, even in the dim light.

He didn't wait, but pulled her on top of him, positioning her so she could ease her body over his, and when she did, he sighed, taking hold of her hips and entering her quickly. He was subdued, she noticed. Carol looked down at him, watching him gently pushing up against her body, enjoying the physical closeness. Wanting more.

"Are you okay, Doug?"

"Sure."

"It feels like you're holding back."

"I'm giving my whole body to you, what am I holding back?" he joked, trying to deflect her inquiry.

"You're so restrained, with me, so controlled. I can feel it. Don't you ever want to just let loose?"

"Let loose?"

"Yeah. Let loose. Let yourself go, just...lose yourself."

Doug looked at her with such ambivalence in his eyes. He couldn't. He never could. If he did, she'd know it. He wouldn't, not with Carol.  With other women, he could let himself go, he could use them, their bodies, work through his anxiety, let his sadness and his loneliness bubble over, but not with Carol. She was different, somehow. Although he could never manage to be faithful to her, never quite live up to her expectations, he had a tenderness, a respect for her that he'd never felt for another woman. That's why it would be too dangerous, letting her in. With her, once the door was opened a crack, it would be opened wide. And then he might love her.

"Are you saying that I'm somehow not satisfying you?" he asked, trying to deflect her point.

"No. I never said that. I'm saying that you can let go...with me."

Doug's brow was furrowed. "I...I can't...Carol."

Her face was sweet and loving, her eyes were deep with understanding.  She gently kissed him, tenderly stroking his hair. "But you can, Doug."

Suddenly, his heart surged and he so wanted this. He closed his eyes and all that he had withheld came bursting forth. He forged ahead, his lovemaking became strong and passionate and raw as he rolled her over and became lost in her sweet flesh, in her arms, her voice, as he praised her and then revealed thinly veiled feelings of want and desire and despair. He came so close, so close, to a physical, and emotional catharsis, so close to being who she wanted him to be. She noticed the change immediately; she stood her ground and took him in, his pain, his fire, his need and his longing and yet, she knew he was holding back that last bit of himself.

"I want you to belong to me. Doug, give in."

And so, in her attempt to welcome him, to encourage him, she in fact caused the very opposite to happen. Upon hearing those words, Doug immediately closed himself to her. And from that point on he began to invent reasons why he couldn't stay with her.

*****

Doug went to a medical conference in Boston and met a pediatrician from New York. They hit it off immediately and spent the better part of three days in bed when they weren't in meetings. Being with her was good for him, he thought, because it kept him from thinking about Carol. Doug knew their relationship was coming to an end and was happy to avoid the inevitable confrontation with her.

When he returned from Boston, he went to Carol's with great trepidation.  But he needn't have worried about a confrontation. They hardly said a word to each other, spending most of the time in bed, their bodies speaking when their voices could not bear to. He gave her a present he'd bought, but she was so sad that he left quickly. Another week went by until she finally brought it up. He had called her into exam three to help put a splint on a toddler with a broken wrist.

"It's a clean break," he explained to the mother as he showed her the x-ray. "We'll transfer her up to ortho and they'll cast her." Carol and Doug worked side by side and then, when the orderlies came to take the little girl upstairs, she turned to face him.

"Doug? We need to talk."

Oh damn, he thought, here it is. He dreaded it. There was no avoiding her, though, because she'd only ask again.

"Sure, sure. Uh...I'm off at four today, you?"

"Three."

"You want me to come by after work?"

"That's fine. I'll see you then."

Doug drove there with his heart in his throat, wondering what kind of hysterics she would use, how he could avoid a long, drawn-out scene. He walked up the familiar steps and opened the door, making his way down the hall to apartment number three.

"Hey, Doug."

"Carol." He looked unsure of himself, as if he shouldn't cross the threshold without permission.

"Come in. Do you want a drink?"

"Yeah, got any gin?"

"Sure. Gin and tonic?"

"Yeah, that's fine." Doug walked over the her couch and sat down. Not knowing where to put his eyes, he looked out the window. The leaves were almost off the trees, he noticed with surprise. Where was I, he thought, when fall happened?

Carol walked back with their drinks and handed one to him. Complete with lime. She never forgets any details, he thought. "Thanks, Carol." He took a sip and waited then, to see if she would start talking. She didn't, though, but just sat back, looking out the same window.

"That maple tree is the only one with leaves on it," she observed.

"Yeah, I noticed that." It was fiery orange and almost glowed in the setting sun.

"It's always the last to lose its leaves. Hangs on 'til the bitter end. I don't think it wants to give them up."

"It's pretty."

"Pretty stubborn," she commented wryly. Sipping her drink, she was afraid to forge ahead, knowing this was the last time she would have to state her case. She delayed, too, hoping he would be the first to bring it up, but after a time she realized that the burden was squarely hers.

"Doug, what are we going to do?"

He shifted his attention then, looking uneasily in her direction.

"About what?" He drank deeply from his glass, wanting the alcohol to numb him.

"Us. About you and me. Where is this going? I need to know. You've avoided me lately, you're withdrawn and you come to see me less and less."

Carol stopped and looked down, bringing her hand to her hair, pushing it away from her face. When she looked back at him, her eyes were as full as he'd ever seen them. "We've been together almost two years,  Doug...and I still don't know how you feel...what you want. But I know what I want...I want you, Doug. I do."

Doug stared at her, thinking that at this very moment she looked so beautiful, displaying her emotions, opening her heart to his scrutiny.  His craving for her, his tender, confusing, awful, wonderful need for her, and hers for him, was too threatening. The feeling suffocated him, the overwhelming feeling of being trapped, of being cornered, and he knew right then that he had to leave her.

"Carol, I don't think I can give you what you want. I just can't." Doug put his drink down and thought for a moment. He got up and moved toward the door, slowly turning around to face her.

Carol was incredulous. "How can you leave now?"

His voice was low and steady, but he avoided her gaze. "I don't have an answer for you. Not the answer you want."

She needed to know. Needed to hear it from him. What was it he'd said earlier today? A clean break? Tears spilled down her cheeks and onto her open palms. "Then look me in the eye and say that you don't love me, Doug."

Doug looked at her, sadness flashing briefly in his dark eyes. He looked away just as quickly, and as he opened the door, she saw him clench his jaw.

"I can't do this, Carol."

The door closed and he was gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ooh she's such a good find
Have you gone and lost your mind?
You should know she's one of a kind

One lonely night
One lonely night
That's all it takes to
Completely break you
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The end