4. My Backwards Walk - Frightened Rabbit
Listen to the song here
“I’m working on my backwards walk
Walking with no shoes or socks
And the time rewinds to the end of May
I wish we’d never met, then met today”
Claire turned her head to look back at her apartment, her hand gripping the door handle.
Looking at it for the last time.
White, clean, spotless. The throw pillows laid at the right spots of the sofa - not too right or too left, just fluffy and perfect. The kitchen counter shone under the last sun rays - stainless steel appliances standing stark against the black granite. The fruit ball at the middle of the table held perfectly stacked apples - three green, three red, all scentless from the chemicals used to make them pretty. The smooth, diffused light filled in the space, stray flecks of dust floating around before they settled on the furniture, waiting for their end under a cleaning cloth.
Everything was in order. Right, precise, proper.
Claire swallowed with difficulty, the thought of Jamie’s apartment like a sharp inhale filling her chest with an unexpected gush of air. It wasn’t the synthetic flower scent Frank preferred in their floor cleaner. It was something earthy, like old books, and musky, like Jamie.
Claire bent and lifted her suitcase from the floor. Some clothes, three of her favorite books and a few pictures. Her mom looking at her, still a baby safely enclosed in slender arms, dark curls flowing all around her face - dark curls like Claire’s. Her dad, walking home with a broad grin, carrying her favorite plush monkey and her bicycle. Her uncle, at her favorite dig in Egypt, with a dusted artifact in hand. A picture of herself, the day she’d gotten her medical degree. Moments she needed to remember.
It was all that she needed with her as she left, to find the Claire she once was. The rebel, the vagabond. The girl who wasn’t numb, who felt her skin burning and her heart beating fast against her rib cage. The one who wanted to live before she’d die.
She had decided to free that girl, after years of imprisonment in a golden cage, in a sterile life. Get her hands in the dirt, feel the soil under her fingernails. Run until her lungs hurt, her breath burning in her throat. Laugh, until tears would blur her vision.
She left a letter to Frank, explaining as best she could. She left the ring, his ring, on top of the white, folded note, a diamond paperweight, holding down her words. She could picture him reading it, calm, his fast breath the only thing revealing his distress. This was one thing she was sure of. Even if she’d stay to talk to him face to face, Frank would keep his composure. He always did. He’d suggest she should take her time to think, because her behavior was irrational. She’d say that she wants to be irrational for once and that their relationship is not what she wants for her whole life, and he’d look at her with pity, shaking his head at the big mistake she’d made.
She didn’t need his judgement, or his help. Not this time. A letter would have to do.
Claire was working on her backwards walk.
She was leaving Frank, leaving that smooth, polished life she thought hers. She headed for the rocks, trembling and unsteady, trying not to fall off the cliff, but unable to keep her eyes on the trail instead of the breathtaking view before her.
She was walking towards Jamie, barefoot and weak - and yet she’d never felt so strong in her life.
“I’m working on my faults and cracks
Filling in the blanks and gaps
And when I write them out they don’t make sense
I need you to pencil in the rest”
Claire closed the door behind her, a soft ‘clack’ that caught in her throat, together with all her suppositions and alternatives. She had done nothing else for a whole week - just contemplating every possible scenario.
Her life. Jamie. Frank.
It wasn’t his fault, what had happened to them - to her. He’d never lied, had never pretended to be something he wasn’t. It was her choice to stay with him, to change herself, to conform. To be acceptable to him. And now it was her choice to leave, because she realized that to be acceptable was not important. What was important was to be accepted.
In their eight years together, she hid from the world, from herself. She’d been convinced, somehow, that she had everything she ever needed. She cherished the invisibility she’d gained over the years; it gave her time and space with herself. She’d been… okay. She had even been happy once in a while.
Claire had learned not to ask for much. Simple things. Few needs, fewer demands. Nothing to disappoint, nor steal her sleep at night. And yet, sometimes she wondered how her voice would sound if she laughed out loud, laughed until she gasped for air. How it would feel to suffocate from happiness.
And then, one evening, she laughed so hard that her facial muscles hurt. It was a stupid joke he’d made, a joke she later learned was him. Jamie. Jamie’s slanted eyes shining with mirth.
He came in her life, a bolt of lightning breaking the silence of her world. Bringing a storm of laughter and feelings. Pouring hard and blowing the dust away, clearing the air, making her see. And suddenly, it all made sense. The novels she read, the movies she thought fake became real in the pounding of her heart at the sight of him. The cool voice she put on when she was talking to him, pretending that her knees didn’t wobble.
Jamie flooded her soul. He filled her world up to the rim, scaring her, overwhelming her, challenging her. He made her feel strong again.
Strong, outside the OR. She’d never expected that. But it wasn’t the same.
In the hospital she knew what she was doing; every little move of her hand had been practiced time and time again. With Jamie, she was losing control. Every time she met him she was losing another layer of her armor, letting her frail skin show, and it frightened her how her hands itched to shed all layers and just be with him. It frightened her even more that he’d seen her and he accepted her as she was. She could see it in the way his eyes shone every time she appeared at the door; she could feel it in the way his touch penetrated her skin. Timid and shy, but he was there, showing more than she could bear to see.
She avoided passing by his bookstore or their bar after the kiss. She didn’t trust herself enough, not when he was always on her mind, haunting her in her dreams. Not when she closed her eyes and she could see him, calm and smiling with that lopsided smile, with that stubble on his chin begging to grind against her skin.
“I’m working on drawing a straight line
And I’ll draw until I get one right
It’s bold and dark girl, can’t you see
I done drawn a line between you and me”
She hadn’t trusted herself when he came to find her at the hospital either. She’d panicked when she’d opened her eyes to find his, red rimmed and pained. She’d quickly donned her armor - breastplate and backplate, helmet and pauldrons - to protect her heart, to protected them both. Nothing could change, nothing would. Fear’s claws were coming for her, dark and monstrous, grabbing her feet, dragging her away from that new world he’d offered her. Undiscovered, unexplored, full of awaiting dangers. The mountains she’d have to climb only to get lost in their fog; the rivers she’d have to cross only to drown in their depths.
She wore her armor so tight, that it was difficult to walk. To walk away from him. To draw a line between them.
She’d been crying silently, every night, for a week. Looking for him around the hospital without knowing why. Trying to bury the hope that sprang up in her heart every day, like wildflowers in the middle of a neatly plowed field.
She couldn’t keep going like this. She had to forget him, to erase him from her memory. Or, at least, to try.
“I’m working on erasing you
Just don’t have the proper tools
I get hammered, forget that you exist
There’s no way I’m forgetting this”
And try she did. She’d tried harder than she’d ever had, to silence his voice in her head, to peel off the layer of her heart where his words had been carved. She’d bit her lips to distract her from the memory of his kiss burning her.
She’d focused on work. Taking double shifts, going back home only to sleep, longing for that dreamless slumber where Jamie would leave her alone.
She’d been angry with him. If she’d never met him, she’d never know. No decision would have to be made, no weights to be balanced, no risk of doing the wrong thing.
She’d been angry with herself. Weak and cowardly, that was what she’d been. A doctor with trembling hands, insufficient to grasp life.
She hadn’t needed to dream of Jamie. He’d been there, in every moment of silence, during the long minutes when the hospital was quiet. Every time she could hear her thoughts, he had been there. The one person who really got her, reading her as if she was an open book, waiting for him to bookmark his favorite passages.
The more she’d tried to delete Jamie from her memory, the more he’d come back to her. He had dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair, sticking out like he’d run his hand through the red locks a million times. And he had the same questions, every time. Always, these burning questions that demanded answers in a way no one had ever demanded an answer from her before.
As if his life depended on it.
Claire had soon realized that there was no way she was forgetting him. His stare, his questions, his kiss. His heart. She couldn’t go on pretending that nothing had happened, because something had happened. Jamie.
A week later, she felt each step bringing her closer to him, the soft soles of her shoes silent against the tarmac, pushing her forward, pushing her to him. To give him the answers he was looking for.
She repeated the last words she’d heard from him in her head, like a prayer, hoping it wouldn’t be too late. His words had been strained and harsh, and they’d nestled in her arteries, coming alive with each pumping of her heart.
You know where to find me.
She stood in front of the bookshop’s window, for the first time indifferent to the new arrivals.
She wasn’t afraid. She was terrified. She was walking away from her whole world. Away from safety, armed with nothing but honesty and his promise, the promise that felt sweet on her tongue. It’s never too late.
Jamie had opened his heart to her; he challenged her. His words had brought pain with them. But they had brought choice, as well, with a duty to follow a path and deal with the consequences.
They’d brought hope and will, where she had only obligation.
Jamie had pushed her to open her eyes, to see, to choose. And Claire chose.
“I’m working hard on walking out
Shoes keep sticking to the ground
My clothes won’t let me close the door
These trousers seem to love your floor”
“Jamie.” Air took her voice as the door closed behind her, a wave, lifting the single word up and carrying it to him.
Jamie’s head shot up from the papers he was reading and he gaped at her, blue eyes wide as if he was seeing a ghost.
“Hi,” she tried again, hoping to elicit a response.
“It’s Friday,” she said with a small smile, wishing it would be contagious and would infect him, like a virus attacking its host.
Jamie didn’t laugh, and his brow furrowed with lines deep enough she thought she could never erase. Her breathing became labored and her gaze ran away from him, wanting to find peace between the books on the shelves, squeezed safe between words that were anything but reality.
His chair scraped against the floor and she inadvertently looked at him again. Now standing, he fixed his eyes on her, but he didn’t speak.
Claire shook her head, curls bouncing with the movement. She put on a tight smile, the best she could under the circumstances, and whispered, so low that he could hardly hear her, “Maybe this was wrong.” The whisper settled in her head, and she turned to leave.
“NO!” His voice reached her like water crushing against a rock, louder than she thought it would be. “Claire…” he said then, low, choked, the sea foam slowly vanishing.
Claire turned around to find him close, so close, barely a foot away. She jerked, surprised, and his hand grasped her arm. “Dinna leave,” he pleaded. She nodded, fixed in place, knowing that she couldn’t leave even if she wanted to. “I canna believe ye’re here.” Jamie explained and smiled softly, tenderly tracing her cheekbone with the back of his fingers.
“I’m here,” she repeated, not knowing what else to say.
He didn’t look much better than the last time she’d seen him. Her presence here was unexpected, of that she was sure; he thought she’d closed that door forever. But she was back, and she realized for the first time how clueless she was about his expectations - of her.
NO. She stopped herself short. No more expectations. She’d do as she wished. She’d be who she wished to be.
“Will ye stay?” he asked, bringing her back to the present, and he gestured towards the back of the shop, to a chair close to his desk.
“Yes,” she whispered and it took all her strength. Jamie took her hand, effortlessly, as if his own was where hers belonged. He grabbed the second chair and moved it close to his own. Claire smiled.
“I canna believe ye’re here,” Jamie said again.
“So you’ve said,” she teased, wondering how it felt so easy, with him. To feel scared, and weak, and happy, and fierce.
Jamie blushed, rubbing the nape of his neck. “Aye, I did. I just canna - ”
“Believe I’m here!” They laughed together, a laughter genuine in their awkward situation. Her hand found his, fingers splayed on his thigh, and she weaved hers in the empty spaces. “I’m sorry it took me an eternity.”
“It did,” he said, nodding repeatedly, but avoiding my eyes. “Claire,” he sighed, solemnly looking at her. “Why are ye here?”
“I couldn’t stay away,” she rushed to say, “I couldn’t forget.”
“I been working on my backwards walk
There’s nowhere else for me to go
Except back to you just one last time
Say yes before I change my mind”
Jamie looked at her, a well-adjusted mask on his face hiding all the feelings just a few millimeters under the surface. Close, but untouchable. It scared her, that mask. Losing him.
“It wasn’t easy.” She stated, looking at him straight in the eye, trying to justify her behavior. “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” She said, the quote coming to her from a forgotten recess of her memory. As if it was waiting for its time to come to the light. The time when she’d be ready to accept its truth.
“Is that - ”
“Fitzgerald? I think so.” She smiled and shrugged, unsure of copyrights at the moment.
“I didna want ye to feel lonely. I just wanted…” his words trailed off, lost in the space between them.
“I know. But there was no other way.” His face dropped and she brought it back with her hand, to look at her. “I’m not lonely now,” she said, brushing two stray locks off his forehead.
A spark. A twig catching fire.
“Because…” he started, leaving it up to her to finish his sentence.
“Because I’m here,” she continued, sure. “I’m not lonely because I’m with you.”
Jamie nodded, his fingers drumming on the desk, his breathing unsteady. “And the man?” he asked. Another question waiting for her answer.
“It’s over,” she said, categorically.
He looked at her for a full minute, without speaking. His voice was low and hoarse when he did. “I never expected ye to disappear. After…”
Claire looked at their hands, fingers still merged together. Skin to skin. Connected. “I never expected to meet someone who’d turn my world upside down. I needed time, Jamie. To be sure, to be fair. To know what I’m doing.”
“And you know now?”
Questions. So many questions, but she couldn’t blame him. She’d left him, as if he meant nothing at all, when he meant everything and something more.
“I know. I knew from the beginning, Jamie, I just couldn’t bring myself to see it. I knew from the first night we stayed in that bar until closing time, talking. I knew, every time I crossed this doorstep. I knew every time I saw you smile at something I’d said. I was in love with you.” Claire stopped and took a deep breath that left her lips mingled with words. “I’m in love with you.
Jamie moved a little closer, his words flying straight into her barely open mouth. “I missed ye, Sassenach.”
Claire looked into his eyes for a long moment before replying, trying to make the words loud enough for him to hear. “I’ve missed you, too.”
“I canna believe ye recited Fitzgerald to apologize,” Jamie said with a grin.
“Hey!” she grinned back. “That wasn’t on purpose!”
Jamie’s eyes crinkled at that, and he shook his head slightly. “Purpose or not, ye hold my heart in her hands, Claire. Ye took it from the beginning, without asking for permission. And now, I dinna care what ye’ll do wi’ it as long as it’ll be yers.” He stopped then, and added, “But I need ye to be certain of it. Are ye?”
Another question, demanding an answer.
“I am,” she said, meaning it. “I don’t want an empty life anymore, Jamie. I want more.” Her voice was earnest, her vision blurred with unshed tears. Jamie nodded but didn’t speak, waiting for more. “I want you. I want more, with you. I’ve never been more afraid in my life, but I’m here.”
It is remarkable how a grin can transform a face. The deep lines Clare had seen on Jamie’s forehead gave way to other, shallow and thin ones around his eyes. Happy ones.
“Claire,” he said and swallowed, bringing his forehead against hers. “May I kiss ye? Without ye running away?”
Claire didn’t answer, but took his bottom lip between her teeth, biting softly. She heard a low growl coming from deep down his throat before she felt his lips against hers, his tongue seeking for her own. Her hand left his and settled over his heart, feeling each loud beat under her palm. Life. Love. Jamie’s hand cupped her head to keep her face on his, his arm coming around her waist to pull her flush to him.
Claire shuddered. She felt the air leaving her lungs. She felt suffocated by happiness.
“You’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it.”