Holding Back: A Heart's Journey 1 by Rachel Perry

PETER DECIDED IT was time to address an issue in their otherwise terrific relationship.

"We talk about everything except about us. What's up with that?"
Holding Back: A Heart's Journey 1
Holding Back: A Heart's Journey 1 by Rachel Perry
He and Erica had been dating for almost two years. They met freshman year in college. He was studying Marine Biology and she was taking business courses. Last year they were both so busy starting school and meeting so many other new people, but they had spent time together and had hung out with each other as often as possible. One of them was always dragging the other to some party, lecture, or exhibit or would meet as often as possible at the "Roach Pit", the dining hall. It was over the summer, however, that they had become close. They both came from small upstate New York towns, not far from each other. They found themselves talking on the phone, texting, e-mailing, or driving to see each other almost every day. It seemed as if they preferred each other's company over spending time with old high school friends. The old friends had grown apart over freshman year, or had at least grown in different directions. Back at school for their second year, they had pretty much become an undeclared item. Neither was seeing anyone else by choice, not by commitment. They were sleeping together whenever one or the other had a free dorm room and Peter couldn't imagine that sex with anyone else could ever be as good, exciting, or satisfying as it was with Erica. He thought she felt the same way, but she never said anything. She seemed to enjoy their time together, but never actually came right out and said she liked him; much less maybe felt anything stronger towards him. He tried to not let it bother him; he sensed she had an issue and she would talk about it when the time came. His gentle prodding today was simply an attempt to open the door to that place she kept locked away. "What do you mean?" Erica asked. "We talk all the time." Peter had to agree, he had never talked so much, about so many things to anyone before. Especially not a girl. "Yeah, I know, but we never talk about us." "Sure we do. All the time. About class and books we like and movies and all that stuff. What do you want to talk about?" Erica questioned. "Oh, I don't know," Peter started. "Like about the future, where do you see us headed?" It was a calculated risk, but he felt he needed to try. A clouded look came over Erica's expression, then she suddenly smiled as she responded, "Well, to the library. I have a paper due in a couple of days, and then maybe the Ratsheller Hole for a snack before bed. Marcie's home tonight. What about David?" "Yeah, David's home tonight." Peter had noticed her subtle switch in topic from talking about them to talking about sex. She was a clever one. "Then it's the library, something to eat, and an early bedtime for us, my friend. Got a full day of classes tomorrow." Erica reiterated. "I kinda meant about the future." Peter tried again gently. "Oh, no plans for the weekend. What do you want to do?" Erica said, innocently. Peter saw he wasn't getting anywhere so he gave up. "I don't know. Maybe there's a new movie we could catch. Come on, grab your books and let's hit the library. I'm hungry." "Do you want to eat first?" she asked. "No," he responded, "I'll get tired and lazy and blow off the library if I eat first and I got some stuff to do, too." THINGS WENT ALONG pretty much unchanged other than an increased comfort between the two of them. They maintained a routine of school and each other's company. Even at Thanksgiving break they spent the holiday together eating two meals - one with each family. They were like a couple, only an unstated couple. It was only by actions and mutual intentions that life together went on. There was no direct communication about the nature of their relationship, their individual intentions towards each other, or verbal commitment of any kind. It didn't really seem salient until second semester. Peter had received an opportunity to spend the summer doing an internship program at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys. It was actually an honor to be selected, especially for a sophomore. He wanted to go and planned to go, but wanted Erica to come with him. That would mean the two of them would be living together for the entire summer break. He was sure she could get a summer job in the Keys and had no qualms about the plan. His only concern was how Erica would react to the idea. For her to agree would be in itself a commitment of sorts to their relationship. He wasn't sure she was ready or able to take that step. Peter's roommate, David, was a psych major and they were friends as well as roommates. He had casually brought up the issue of Erica's difficulty expressing her emotions with David in the past, but very superficially. David's comments had always been encouraging like, "She's young - she'll develop over time," or "Do you want to get married now? If not, why worry about it now? Just see how it goes. Deal with it when it's important." It had made sense at the time. Now, with the possibility of spending months together intimately, it seemed important. Peter wanted to get David's input before approaching Erica to keep his head balanced and in perspective. No, he wasn't talking about getting married, but nonetheless, a couple of months together were significant. Chapter Two PETER WAS A little surprised by David's answer. David had listened carefully to Peter's concerns and sat thinking for a while. Finally, he responded, "I think you're absolutely right. It is a big step, for both of you. And I do think you need to feel better about things before taking that step. I mean, you're pretty invested in this relationship already, right?" "Well, duh!" Peter replied. "Then I think, for your sake, it's time to clear the table or slate or whatever that expression is. But I want to be clear about this: I think you should do this for yourself. You're always so damned worried about Erica and how she feels. You're always protecting her. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, right now you need clarity. You need to know where you stand. Isn't that what you're really saying?" Peter had to admit that was true. He wasn't a "love 'em and leave 'em" kind of guy. This was an important step for him as well and he deserved some reassurance. "Not only that," David continued, "but I'm not sure you're doing Erica any favors by protecting her anymore. She's almost 21, and it's time for her to figure out what's going on in her head. It sometimes takes an uncomfortable, even painful situation to precipitate introspection. She may need counseling, and you enable her stunted emotional development by standing by, patiently hoping someday she'll tell you she loves you. Or maybe you're afraid she doesn't love you. In that case you need to grow up. How much more of your time and emotion are you willing to give up for someone that doesn't or can't love you back? I once told you to wait until it was important. Well, I think it is important now. Don't you?" Peter was amazed by the clarity and sense of what David had just said. Damn, it was hard growing up sometimes. David was sure right about one thing, though - Peter had been complacent in part out of fear of rejection. If he really cared about Erica, and he did, then it was in her best interest to face this issue now, as well as in his own. If she wasn't able, or didn't feel the same way as he did, there was no use pretending anymore. "One more thing," David offered, "Buddha said fight hate with love, anger with kindness. Whatever you do, don't approach this aggressively and demandingly. Just put your feelings out there and tell her your concerns about her role in the relationship lovingly and kindly. Let her know that it really is unusual after all this time together she has never said 'I love you' or 'I want to be with you' or given any indication that she is as invested in the relationship as you are. Actions may speak louder than words, but, buddy, the words in a loving relationship are important, too, right?" "Well, yes, I guess so," Peter meekly said. "You guess so?" David countered. "Words convey meaning and clarify actions. Without them we can only guess that our interpretation of another's actions is correct. Do you want to keep on guessing?" "No," Peter replied, a little less meekly. "What?" demanded David, "I can't hear you!" "No!" Peter almost yelled. "It is time, isn't it?" "It is time." David said gently. "Good luck, buddy. I'm always here if you need to talk." Peter thought how great David will be as a therapist. He sure nailed this. His plan was to take Erica somewhere private to clear the air and talk about the summer and about them. He briefly considered, "What if she's not really into me." His next immediate thought was, "Better to know now than later." Growing up was definitely a bitch. "Hey, whatcha doing Saturday?" Peter had it all worked out. "Nada, what do you have in mind?" Erica asked. "How about a picnic?" Peter asked. Erica gave him a "you're a dumbass" look and said, "It's March and there are two feet of snow on the ground." "No snow at the Arboretum," Peter said smugly, "and they keep it warm for all the plants and trees." "You are a genius! I don't care what anyone else says about you," Erica smiled. "People say shit about me?" Peter asked. Erica just shook her head and laughed. THE ARBORETUM DIDN'T actually allow picnics per se so they packed brown bag lunches, cans of soda and sat on one of the benches by a leafless Red Maple tree. While it wasn't actually warm, it was warmer than outside and there was no snow inside the structure. It is nice and different, Erica thought. Peter waited until they had started eating to start the conversation. Holy crap, here I go, he thought, before clearing his throat and saying, "Can I talk to you about something?" "Can I stop you?" Erica said with a smile. Pete didn't smile back, he was really too nervous. He had rehearsed this part over and over, and yet he still was anxious. "Something's coming up and I need to talk to you about it. I guess I really need to talk to you about a lot of things, but, oh shit, I'm already off track." Erica sensed the urgency in Peter's voice and immediately became serious. "What's up, are you sick? Is everything okay? Just slow down and tell me one thing at a time, okay?" Peter cleared his throat again which was suddenly dry. He took a sip of his soda and said, "The Dolphin Center in Florida, you know the research center offered me an internship for the summer." "Oh, Peter, that's great!" Erica exclaimed with genuine excitement, "I remember you talking about that place and how you hoped you could go like after Junior or Senior year, this is great news!" Peter looked at her and continued, "I want you to come with me. We could get an apartment, they give a stipend for that, and you could get a summer job I'm sure, but-" "But what?" Erica tentatively asked. "But I need to know how you feel about me." Peter had finally gotten it out. After he had said it, he looked directly into her eyes. Chapter Three ERICA SHIFTED HER gaze downwards and said, "You know how I feel about you." "No, I don't, sweetheart, I know how I think you feel about me, but that's not the same as hearing you tell me." Peter's speech had become a little pressured. Erica tried to defend her posture by saying, "I tell you all the time." "No. No, you don't, Erica. I tell you 'I love you' and you smile, you never say 'I love you' back. You've never said 'I love you', or anything to really indicate how you feel. You never talk about the future; I mean our future, together. You talk about your plans to open a business, where you want to open your business, but never once have you put me in any of the plans you've talked about." Erica quietly replied, "People say 'I love you' all the time and it doesn't mean anything." Peter now felt a little angry, "And sometimes it does, doesn't it? I mean when you say it and mean it, I don't know, it conveys something I need to hear. I mean, do you love me or not?" Erica sat quietly looking down, not saying a word. Now Peter was feeling pissed off and, in part, rejected. "It's a simple question Erica. Do you love me?" Again, she remained silent. Now really angry, Peter stood up saying, "I guess that's my answer. I'm not really hungry anymore, I want to go. Let's go." Erica looked up with a pained expression and said, "Peter-" "What? You don't have to let me down gently, I get it. Come on, I'm out of here." Peter started walking. Erica said nothing more and they rode back to campus in silence. Peter stopped at Erica's dorm and waited for her to say something. She simply got out of the car and walked away. He didn't see the tears starting to fall as she left. Peter went to his dorm room and found David. He was studying for mid-terms. Mid-semester recess was the week after next, all next week was exams. "Come on," Peter said tersely, "buy me some beer, I want to get drunk." David had just turned 21, Peter's birthday was still months away. "Didn't go well, I assume?" asked David. "Damn skippy, you were so right. She doesn't love me, man. Plain and simple." Peter almost cried. "She said that, or once again you're interpreting her actions without hearing the words?" David was playing Devil's advocate. "Maybe she just couldn't tell you." "Same God-damned thing isn't it?" Peter shouted now, with tears in his own eyes. "Is it?" David asked, gently. "I don't think so." Now angry again, and sad at the same time, Peter challenged his friend, "You're a lot of fucking help! You started this!" "Did I?" asked David. "I don't think so." Peter looked at his friend and sobbed quietly. Of course David hadn't started anything. "How about that beer?" "I don't think so, my friend, maybe tomorrow if you still want, but not tonight. It won't help." David's logic was sound. He was a good friend. The next day passed without any contact between Erica and Peter. And then it was exam week. On Tuesday Erica called Peter and said, "Hey." Peter simply replied, "He," back, and there was an uncomfortable silence. "Exams going okay?" she asked. "Fine," he replied and then another silence. "Can I come by tomorrow?" she asked. "Leaving right after my 10 o'clock, going home," he said, and nothing more. "Oh, okay, see ya," And she hung up. Her tears held off until she had hung up, but then then flooded her face. "What's wrong with me?" she said aloud to the empty room. "What the hell is wrong with me?" Erica got through her exams with a heavy heart. When she got home for the break, her mom was working. She was an ER doc and worked 12-hour shifts. The next day, Erica let her mother sleep in, but when she awoke, she brought her coffee and asked if they could talk. She and her mother had always been close. H Her father had left them before Erica was born, and it had just been the two of them until her mother remarried when she was six. Her step-father was a good man and had always treated her and cared for her as his own. When she was seven, she got her baby brother who had been a joy in her life. The two sat together in Eileen's bed. Sipping her coffee, her mother asked what was up. Before Erica could say anything, she burst into tears. Not the gentle tears of subtle emotions, but gut wrenching, heaving sobs of deep grief. Her mother was taken aback a bit. Erica was usually stoic and rarely showed emotion. Eileen gathered her daughter up into her arms and rocked her like she had done when she was a baby. The sobbing eventually subsided and Erica caught her breath. When she was calm, Eileen asked, "So what was that all about? Tell me what's going on." Once she started telling her Mom the story and what had happened, it all came out as if the flood gates had opened. Her mother knew and genuinely liked Peter, and she understood the situation immediately. "Oh, my poor baby girl, I'm so, so sorry. This is all my fault." Eileen said. Erica looked at her mother and asked, "How is this your fault?" "Oh, my dear, I taught you to distrust, didn't I? When you were a very little girl, I taught you," her mother said. "What do you mean, Mom?" inquired Erica. "I have trust. I trust you and Dad and Johnny. And I trust Peter. I really do." Eileen thought about what she wanted to say. "I taught you not to trust emotions, not to trust love. When your father left me pregnant with you, I was devastated. I loved your father with every fiber of my being, and I thought he loved me too. After you were born, my love turned to hate. I hated that he left us for... Well, never mind that. But I was so confused and hurt and afraid, but I had you. You were all I had and I vented my anger and hurt, thinking you were just a baby and I really had no one else to talk to." Chapter Four "WHEN I MET your step-father you were already six. The damage had already been done, I just didn't see it. I had already taught you not to trust your feelings or anyone else's. I felt I should have known somehow, seen it coming. I was so happy Erica, I was finally pregnant and in love with your father. "Afterwards, I vowed I'd never love again, and I vowed to protect you from ever having to experience the same hurt and rejection I had suffered. I never considered what it would do to you later on in life. I'm so sorry my dear, so, so sorry. It was terribly wrong of me to put all that on you." "But, Mom, you did love again, right? You love Dad right?" Erica asked. "I have grown to love him, but I don't think I can honestly say I loved him at first. He was so kind, gentle, and patient; and he adored you. I thought you needed a father and I didn't mind the attention. Over the years, though, I have grown to love him, very much," her mother answered. Erica quietly asked, "Do you tell him you love him? I don't think I ever heard you say it to him." "Oh, I show him every day that I care, he knows." Her mother answered. "But have you ever told him?" Erica continued, "Peter said something like words define actions. That others can only guess what you mean by what you do, he said 'words clarify actions.'" Eileen looked at her daughter in wonderment. "That Peter is pretty smart, isn't he? I can't argue with that at all. Let me ask you something - do you love him? What do you really feel for him?" Erica responded with more tears, "I miss him so much, Mommy. We haven't talked in days. I feel like a part of me is missing." "Well, that sounds like love to me. What are you afraid of my dear?" Eileen was trying to determine whether this was a "mother can fix it" problem, or something deeper that may require an outside professional help. Erica thought for a minute and finally said, "I guess I'm afraid he will leave me like my biological father did. I don't understand how he could have just left us and never look back. Like we weren't important at all. How could he not want to see me, to know me? If my own father didn't want me, how can I trust any man to want me?" Eileen started choking back a sob upon hearing her daughter's insecurities about men. "Oh, my God Erica, this really is all my fault. Your father tried to see you and I prevented him. I never told you. I kept our whereabouts secret. I hid you from him. I know for a fact he tried, but I didn't give in. I figured he had caused us enough pain, I wasn't going to allow him another chance to hurt me again. I mean hurt us again. "Do you remember when you were young, going to court? Well, I sued him for parental rights after I married John. I just wanted us to be a happy, intact family. I figured your father would be too busy doing whatever he was doing to respond. Actually, he was in Florida, taking care of your grandmother, who was dying of cancer. I was so surprised when he showed up at court and contested the claim. "You must remember, the judge let him see you, it was the last time you did see him, I think. I'll never forget what he said. He told the judge that I had known John less than two years and he didn't know him at all. If he agreed to give up his rights and we walked out of court and I got hit by a bus and died, then he didn't want someone I had known such a short time and he didn't know at all, raising his daughter. He said that if I wanted to change your last name to John's then it was okay. You would change your name when you married anyway. He said that if I thought it would be better for you if we all had the same last name, then okay. But he would not give up his parental rights. He's been paying child support ever since. I never told you. I don't know why." Now they were both crying. "I just wanted him out of my life-out of our lives. I pretended that he never existed." "I do remember seeing him at court," Erica sobbed, "I also remember my brothers. You didn't just keep my father away from me, but my brothers, too." The reality of that statement hit Eileen hard. It was an aspect of her decision she had never considered. "You are absolutely right, Erica, and they, and you, didn't deserve that. I just never thought-" Eileen looked at Erica and continued. "There's more you should know-about your father and why he did what he did. It wasn't really all his fault, but another time. Right now, I think you should be very angry with me and I want to beg for your forgiveness. Can you ever forgive me, Erica?" "Mom, I can't imagine what you went through, and I don't care what extenuating circumstances there were. What he did was just wrong and hurtful and, well, just wrong. I don't hate you, I could never hate you. But what do I do about Peter?" Erica asked in despair. "Well," her mom answered, "as I see it you have two choices. Let him go, which I don't think is a viable option. Or go to him and tell him how you feel, which will be difficult. You don't have any practice at that. Try to make him understand some of this and see if he'll stand by you while you try to figure it out. It has been twenty years in the making. It will take some time to resolve, don't you think?" "Does it have to be this complicated?" asked Erica softly. "Unfortunately, it is this complicated, and I made it even more so." Mom offered, "I will help you as much as I can, but please don't ask me to see or talk to your father. That, I cannot, and will not, do." LATER THAT EVENING, Eileen was talking with her husband. "You know I love you, right?" John was taken by surprise, "Sure. What brought that on?" "I mean, I tell you I love you, don't I?" she asked. He responded, "Sure, every day, by the things you do." She asked, "But I tell you, don't I? Do I say the words?" "You did once, on our wedding night," was all he said, and he smiled, "and just now." Chapter Five ERICA REALLY DIDN'T have a choice, she left her mother still drinking her coffee and got into her car and drove directly to Peter's house. She needed to do this while it was still fresh. Before she had a chance to retreat back into the safety of no emotion. Peter's mother answered Erica's knock on the front door. Erica's face must have conveyed the myriad of emotions, torment, and sadness she was feeling. Peter's mother greeted her with a huge smile and embrace and said, "I am so happy to see you. He hasn't been out of his room since he got home." She motioned Erica inside and gestured with her eyes towards Peter's bedroom. Erica knocked gently on Peter's closed door. "I'm not hungry, Ma, okay? But, thanks. I just want to be alone." A hoarse voice that sounded sadly dejected answered. "Can I come in?" asked Erica tentatively. "It's me." There were some shuffling sounds before Peter opened the door. He was disheveled with Einstein hair sticking up. He was in rumpled pajamas, even though it was afternoon. It didn't look, or smell, as if he had showered recently. Erica could see crumpled potato chip bags, the remains of half-eaten Oreo cookies, and empty soda cans littering his room beyond the door. They stood looking at one another for only a second before Erica started sobbing. She had cried more in the past week than in her entire life. Peter reached out and held her closely, letting her emotions follow their natural path. When she was in some control, she sobbed, "Can we talk?" "Sure," Peter answered. Looking around his dirty room, he said, "Maybe not here. Let's go somewhere private and quiet. Let me just throw on some clothes." "And maybe a shower first, okay? I can wait," Erica offered, with a smile through her tears. Peter chuckled and said, "Whatever the lady demands. Go talk to my Ma while I clean up." Peter's mother was in the kitchen. She had been trying unsuccessfully not to eavesdrop, but she loved her son and really liked this girl. They were good together. She had coffee and some homemade banana bread ready for Erica. While they sat and waited, Peter's mom tried not to pry - but talked about school, the weather, and then asked about Erica's family. That was when she started to get teary once again. "Oh, Erica, I didn't mean to upset you. Is everything all right? Is your family okay?" Peter's mom asked with concern. "Yup, okay," Erica managed to get out, trying to control her emotions. Just then, Peter arrived, freshly showered, and surveyed the scene. "Okay, let's go," he said gently, taking Erica by the arm. "Thank you, Mrs. Bell. The bread was delicious." Erica smiled and said, "Everything's okay, really." "I hope so, dear," Mrs. Bell responded, "see you later?" "I hope so," was all Erica answered. THEY DROVE TO a secluded spot by a lake where they liked to spend time relaxing. The last few days had been warmer and the snow had melted, leaving a muddy landscape that neither of them noticed. They walked to a bench positioned by the water's edge and sat. They sat for several minutes just enjoying each other's company while Erica collected her thoughts. She hadn't really thought about what she wanted to say. Peter just sat and waited. He looked at Erica, thinking how beautiful she was and how sad she looked. It broke his heart. Finally, he said, "I've missed you, Erica." Erica smiled, took a deep breath, and said, "Did you know I was named after my father?" Peter looked momentarily confused and said, "Your father's name is John." "No," Erica said with the conviction to get it all out. "My father left before I was born. His name was Eric, Eric Collins. John King is my step-father. I took his last name when he married my mother." Erica looked at Peter, unsure of how to continue. Peter sensed she needed time to organize her thoughts and emotions, so he just waited patiently for her to go on with her story. "And I have two older brothers. I bet you didn't know that either," she offered. "I had almost forgotten that myself. You know, it's funny how crap in your subconscious can affect your conscious behaviors." That one comment was an epiphany for Erica, and Peter saw it for what it was - a major breakthrough of understanding of what was happening inside of his girlfriend's head and heart. There was nothing he could do to help her with it at this time, other than to be kind and patient and let her work through it. So he sat close by, giving support simply by his physical and emotional presence. Chapter Six SUDDENLY, THE TEARS started welling in her eyes and, within seconds, she was crying those body-wrenching sobs from the depths of her own damaged subconscious. "I do love you, Peter," she managed to say between the gasps of breath that fueled her sobbing, "and I do want to go to the Keys with you. I want to go wherever you are. I don't ever want to be without you again. I've been miserable this week; really miserable." Now there were tears in Peter's eyes as he said, "Me too, sweetie. Me, too." He held her against his chest and let the crying end in its own time. When she had calmed, he lifted up her chin and kissed her tenderly. She responded by returning a kiss less tender and more urgent, filled with passion. They sat in that close embrace, kissing and holding each other as if they could never let go. Finally, Peter said, "What can I do to help?" "Time and patience is all I need," Erica answered honestly. "I always thought my father left us because of me. I've been waiting for twenty years for him to show up, and-" Erica restarted her choking sobbing, "tell me he loved me. Now, I find out he did want to see me and mom wouldn't let him. She never told me until today. She said she didn't want him to hurt me anymore, but what she really meant was that she didn't want to be hurt anymore. It took her a long time to recover from what he did, I get that what she did, she did thinking she was protecting us somehow. But now there are some things I need to figure out. It turns out there's a lot I didn't know and a lot more I still don't know. Do you think it's too late?" "It's never too late to understand things, especially when it comes to things that affect you so strongly. I hope you never stop trying to understand things, including me." Peter was an old soul. He always knew just what to say. "Hey, you have two more brothers? I wonder what they're like." Erica responded, "No idea, they must be messed up if they were raised by him, I think." "How old would they be?" Peter inquired. "If I remember right, the younger one was about ten when I was born and his brother was a couple of years older; so like maybe 30 and 32 or 33, I guess. I'm not really sure," she answered. "It'd be cool to find them, wouldn't it? Maybe you're an aunt. Wouldn't that be awesome?" Peter was always looking for the best in every situation. "And maybe they're dead of a drug overdose, or in jail. Who would know if they were raised by someone who could do what he did to my mother?" Erica was more of a pragmatist. "Well, that would certainly tell you something about your father, wouldn't it?" Peter asked. "Do you want to meet him? Your father, I mean." "I remember him. I saw him when I was six, Mom reminded me." Erica continued, "I think I want to see my brothers first, and then decide. Does that make sense?" Peter responded with his usual wisdom. "It makes perfect sense, but for now, I think you've had enough input to deal with, don't you? And besides, I'm hungry, let's go back to my house and eat. You have plenty of time to figure this all out, and you know you don't have to do it all alone. I'll be with you every step of the way. I mean... if you want me to." "I want you to. You better believe I want you to," Erica said as she moved in for another kiss and embrace. They walked into Peter's house, arm in arm, and met his mother in the kitchen. She took one look and heaved a sigh of relief. "So everything's okay with you two?" Erica smiled and nodded. Peter just smiled. "Thank God," his mother said. "Can you clean up your room now? It's starting to smell!" OVER THE REMAINING days of vacation, Erica and Peter spent every possible moment together. They decided to try and locate Erica's older brothers. As much as she was interested in seeing how they had turned out, she also wondered if they would remember her and what sort of reaction she would get if and when she decided to reveal herself. All sorts of scenarios played through Erica's mind, most of which she verbalized to Peter. Finally, Peter had suggested that she stop wasting so much energy on supposition and find out. They could talk forever about what may or may not be and what may or may not happen. Why not put all that mental and emotional effort into resolving some issues? Erica seemed overwhelmed and confused about how to start. Once again, Peter said something that made total sense. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." Erica giggled at that but understood what he meant. So she devised step one: search Facebook for her brothers' names and see if anyone popped up about the right age. That would be the first "bite." Depending on the results, she could then consider a second "bite." Chapter Seven SHE WAS SURPRISED that she felt some butterflies in her stomach as she and Peter got online and loaded Facebook. When she was signed in and had pulled up the search box, she suddenly froze. She couldn't remember their names. Maybe she never knew them. She had decided to leave her mother out of the whole searching for her roots thing, but she had no other way to get this information. She had to ask her mom. Her mom was working at the moment, on duty at the Emergency Room. She always turned off the ringer but left the cell on for text messages, which she checked frequently. She sent off a text that simply said, What are my brothers' names please? She hoped that wouldn't upset her mom too much. It apparently didn't because of the subtle humor in her response. Her mother answered, Jesse and Nathan Collins and John King, Jr. Erica sent back, LOL. Luv U. Thx. With their names, it was surprisingly easy. They found a Nathan Collins, age 30, living in Naples, Florida; and Jesse Collins, age 33, also in Naples. It was surprising to see that they lived in Florida, in the same town. The thought crossed her mind briefly that perhaps she might get to meet them when Peter and she went to Florida for the summer. One bite at a time, she heard Peter say in her mind. God, he was smart. She sent a friend request to both boys and said to Peter, "Now all we have to do is wait." Peter, in his usual philosophic way, said, "Buddha says, 'Have not expectations and suffer no disappointment.'" Erica hated Buddha sometimes. By the end of the vacation break, there had been no response from either of the boys. Erica was depressed and felt rejected again from her biological family. Her mom was helping her pack to go back to college. She sensed the dour mood Erica had been in the last day or two and asked her about it. "Screw Buddha. I am disappointed, Mom," and told her about Facebook and not hearing back from her brothers. Eileen had no idea what Buddha had to do with anything, but gently asked, "In what name did you send your friend request?" "In my name, of course," responded Erica. Her mother didn't become a PhD/MD by being stupid. She asked her daughter, "Do you think they know who Erica King is? They probably get friend requests from strangers all the time. I do and just ignore them. Try sending the request from Erica Collins and see what happens." That simple reality dawned in Erica's mind and she visibly improved her mood immediately. She hugged her mother and said, "Thanks, Mom. I'm sorry to bring this all up again for you." Eileen smiled and said "I'm the one who's sorry, my darling. I told you I would help however I can, except..." Erica interrupted by finishing her mother's thought, "I know. I won't bring him up, okay?" "I loved those boys and have missed them. I'd like to know about them if you find out, okay?" her Mom asked. "Oh, I'll find out," Erica vowed, "one bite at a time." Again, Eileen had no idea what that meant, but smiled and let it go. Less than a day after resending her friend requests she got a message from Nathan, "My sister, Erica?" Erica simply responded, "Yes." Nathan sent back the message, "Dad always said you would try to find us. Wow, can't believe it's you. Wait till I tell Jesse." Well, at least they aren't in jail, Erica thought. She was again surprised at how happy the communication had made her feel. He had called her "sister" as if he had been waiting all this time to reunite. The underlying feeling of abandonment she had always carried seemed to lift just a little. It also pleased her that he seemed close to his brother. "Isn't that a good sign?" she asked Peter when she shared the message later that night. Nathan had included all his contact information in his message including his e-mail, Skype ID, cell phone number, and mailing address. Now the ball was in her court. "What do you want to do?" asked Peter. "Take another bite," answered Erica with conviction. Over the course of the next few weeks, Erica had many communications from both Nathan and Jesse. She learned a lot about her brother's lives, their work and families. Nathan was a PGA golf pro, a teaching pro in Naples, at one of the nicer country clubs. He had a girlfriend who was a Gap model and apparently very smart as well as beautiful. When she had asked Jesse if he thought Nathan was serious about this girl, Jesse had responded in good humor, "As serious as Nathan can be I guess. He says PGA stands for 'Prostitution, Gambling, and Alcohol' and he takes it pretty seriously." Jesse was married to a beautiful woman and had one daughter and another on the way. His wife was a graphic artist and worked from home. He had gone to college to play baseball and had coached girls' softball for a few years after graduating. Now he worked at his brother's club and enjoyed his wife, his daughter, and life in general. Both boys sensed Erica's sensitivity where their father was concerned and made a point not to push him on her. They were firm believers in "one step at a time." They felt they needed this time to get to know their sister and the time would come for their father to be introduced if and when she was ready. At one point Jesse did tell her that they had tried to find her; that their dad had hired an attorney on at least two occasions. He told her that the first time the lawyer had taken Dad's money only to report the trail had gone cold. They were never really sure he had done anything at all. The second one had found Erica and had spoken to her mom. The female lawyer had told their father that Erica was well taken care of. That she was loved and secure and in a good environment. That her step-father seemed to be a good man that took excellent care of her. The lawyer asked Dad if he really wanted to barge in now and introduce the kind of emotional distress it would cause. Their father had decided that he had caused enough pain and decided that knowing she was okay was enough. He didn't want to introduce any more confusion and conflict. "I just thought you should know that," Jesse had said, and never brought it up again. Chapter Eight BOTH BOYS HAD a lot of pictures on their Facebook pages. It was amazing how much all three siblings looked alike, even though they had different mothers. There were several pictures posted of their father over the years and there was no doubt who all three resembled. Nathan, in particular, looked like their father. Actually, Nathan and Erica looked more alike than Nathan and Jesse, which Erica thought odd. There were pictures of the boys and their father whitewater rafting in Costa Rica, at Jesse's wedding, graduations, and birthdays. There were also pictures of a couple, whom Erica learned were Tasha and Yuriy from Ukraine, a couple their dad had befriended on a cruise and brought to the United States. They had lived with him for five years. They were all friends and all lived in Naples. Jesse told Erica that Dad had married Tasha to help them stay in America. Tasha and Yuriy had come with Dad to Jesse's wedding and Jesse said it was so much fun introducing Tasha, who was 22 and stunningly beautiful-she had been a model-as his step-mother to all his friends. The more Erica learned about her brothers and their lives, the more confusing it became for her. During one conversation with Nathan, he said something unusual. He said that they had a lot more in common. He had said that Erica grew up not knowing her father and that he had grown up without knowing his mother. That she had died the day he was born. Later, talking to Peter about that conversation, she had asked him if he thought losing her brother's mother in childbirth had anything to do with why her father had left them when her mother had gotten pregnant. "Makes you wonder, huh?" Peter had said. "But I don't think there's a single easy answer to why what happened, happened. I think there's probably a lot more we don't know. "I read a quote one time that has stuck with me. 'Human beings like to give simple explanations for complex behaviors.' I think that applies here, don't you? I don't think it's simple at all. Let me ask you something - are you disappointed their not being drug addicts or in jail?" Erica responded strongly, "No! I think Jesse and Nate are great guys. I'm happy to have two good guys for brothers. I'm happy for them and happy they're in my life." "Okay." Peter prodded further, "Are you pissed that he was a good father to them and not to you?" Erica thought for a moment before answering, "I had a good father - no, I have a good father. John King has been my father since I can remember." "Yeah," Peter mused, "and your biological father knew that. It was a tough call on his part and really unselfish, don't you think? " Erica quietly said, "I'll never forgive him for what he did to my mother. Never." THE WEEKS WENT by and the end of the semester was looming near. Jesse's second daughter, Phoebe Marie, was born, joining her sister, Sophia Rose. Nathan broke up with his model girlfriend. The exact reason was sketchy but had something to do with gambling and money. Nathan didn't seem too fazed by it. Erica and Peter were busy studying for finals and making plans for their summer expedition. Erica and her mom had spent several hours discussing what Erica should do over the two months in Florida. She had made tentative plans with Jesse and Nathan. They had planned to wait two weeks to allow Erica and Peter time to settle into their apartment, and let Peter get oriented to his program. Then Nathan, Jesse and Jesse's wife, Rose, and daughters planned to come down to Key West for a week's vacation with Erica and Peter. During their second month in Florida, Erica was to go to Naples and spend a week with the guys. Eileen insisted that setting up housekeeping and living full time with Peter, meeting her brothers for the first time, and exploring a new place - especially a tropical paradise - should be enough. She told Erica that the last few weeks had been stressful enough with school, Peter, and reconnecting with her brothers. Eileen strongly recommended that Erica not try to also work, but should try to relax and use the time to heal. Erica had no difficulty with the suggestion, especially when her Mom told her that she had been putting the child support away in savings for her, so she could draw on that money instead of working. Here was one more little piece of information that came as a surprise. Erica wondered how much more had been kept secret from her. Jesse had posted new pictures of his new daughter on Facebook. Erica was trying to study for exams, but her mind kept wandering to the upcoming events in her life so she went to Facebook to see what was up with her brothers. The baby sure was cute and she thought Phoebe actually looked a little like Erica did as a baby. That thought made her smile. I'm an aunt twice now, she realized. There was one picture of an old man with thinning, patchy hair sitting in one of those oversized hospital recliner chairs with an intravenous line hooked up to him. The old man holding Phoebe had Sophia sitting on his lap and looked happy but sick. She would have to remember to ask Jesse next time who the old man was. It probably was a relative of Jesse's wife, or maybe a family friend. Chapter Nine "THAT'S DAD," JESSE said simply. "Our father?" asked Erica. "It doesn't look like him." "He's sick," was all Jesse offered. "Sick with what?" asked Erica. "A bad liver." Jesse answered. "He's getting chemo in the picture. I thought the girls would cheer him up. As you can see in the picture, they did." "From drinking?" asked Erica. Jesse laughed and said "That's what everyone thinks at first, but no. Dad never drank and never smoked. It turns out he got hepatitis in Viet Nam and never knew it. Now, almost forty years later, it came back to bite him in the ass." "Is he okay?" Erica asked hesitantly, not sure if she really cared and yet needing to know. "Yeah, he's doing okay. The treatments make him sick as shit, but seem to be working," her brother answered. "Will he live?" she asked. "Don't know yet, jury's still out. The treatments might kill him though. The chemo kills good cells as well as the bad ones so he goes on Wednesday to get shots to boost his red blood cells and white blood cells so he can get the treatments on Friday. He spends all weekend sick as shit with fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea. But by Monday or Tuesday, he can go back to work." "He's working through this?" Erica asked incredulously. "Yeah, the clinic he practices for has been great. He comes in to help out when he can as an extra hand. Dad's a hard ass - he says if he's dealing with other people's health problems, he's not dwelling on his own. He works every day he can, although lately it seems to be getting harder for him." Jesse considered that was the most Erica had ever asked or wanted to know about their father. "Something else you should know I guess. Grandma had cancer in her mid-fifties, too. Three different kinds at the same time. That's how we ended up in Florida. Dad came to help take care of her. She was given six months to live and Dad was teaching medicine in Albany." Erica realized that Albany was really close to her home town. Her father had been less than fifty miles away the whole time. Jesse continued. "He took a leave of absence to help with her end of life. She lived seven and a half years. He used to tell us her oncologist said she only lived that long because of the care she was getting, but he wasn't sure he was doing her any favors. Her quality of life sucked the last few years. After she died, Dad stayed in Florida and we came down. But the family history for cancer is big, that's why I get so pissed at Nate for smoking cigarettes. Why take chances?" Erica focused on the family health history - it was something she hadn't considered before. "What about our grandfather?" she asked. "Oh, Grandpa died about the time you were born. I'm sorry you never got to know him. He was a great guy. He had emphysema and diabetes and a bad heart. He died of his emphysema - another reason Nate shouldn't smoke, but you can't tell him anything. Grandpa sure loved your mother though. I heard him tell Dad once that if he divorced Eileen, he was keeping her and forgetting him. Dad once said he thought what happened between him and your mom killed his father, not the breathing." LATER, ERICA WAS telling Peter about her latest conversation with Jesse. "Talk about TMI. Peter, how do I process all this?" she asked plaintively. "How do you eat an elephant?" Peter asked. Somehow Erica managed to get through all her exams and, after the last, was back in her dorm room. She was experiencing the letdown she always felt after exams were done. Physically, she had stayed up way too many hours having drunk way too many cups of coffee studying. Mentally, in addition to worrying about exams, she had all the family issues playing on her mind - the trip to Florida coming up and a turmoil of emotions she couldn't resolve. Peter had one more test to take tomorrow, and then they were packing up and going back home together. They didn't have to be in Florida for a couple of days, so she thought that maybe she could get some rest before the trip. She looked at the clock. It was only 1 PM. Peter was studying for tomorrow's exam and she didn't want to disturb him. She was hungry but too tired to trek all the way to the dining hall to eat. She thought maybe taking a nap for a couple of hours and then meeting up with Peter for dinner was a better idea. She texted Peter the plan and he sent back a text. Sounds good. Grub at 5? See you then. Luv ya. She responded. C U then. Love you too" Then she was asleep before her head hit the pillow. Chapter Ten SHE WAS A princess, secluded in a beautiful and spacious castle but wasn't allowed to go outside of the castle walls. Her mother, the queen, gave her beautiful things and said she loved her. Her mother led her to believe her entire life that she was being kept in seclusion for her own protection. The princess never questioned the queen's motives and lived her life believing that it was the way it should be. The queen had very strict rules about who could be in the princess's presence and no one could speak directly to the princess without the queen's permission. Over time, the princess began to realize that the queen was really holding her prisoner in the castle. The princess came to understand that her mother, the queen, had been badly hurt outside of the castle when she had been younger, and was keeping the princess captive out of her own fears. It really wasn't for the princess's benefit, but out of the queen's own needs. The princess decided to take matters into her own hands. She wanted to escape the boundaries of the castle, but her mother's fears had been engrained in her on her entire life. While she desperately wanted freedom, she was also afraid. One day, after riding her stallion on the castle grounds, she returned the horse to the stable. There, the stable boy named Peter took the horse to water and groom. He did so without speaking, as was the rule. "Peter, tell me. How may I leave this place?" the princess asked. "You know the queen forbids me to speak with you, Princess." Peter responded. "I am the princess and I am of age. You will do as I command. Now tell me, how may I leave this place?" the princess demanded. The stable boy looked at the beautiful princess and answered, "One step at a time my lady," and held out his hand. "Come with me and I will show you the way." Together the two took one hesitant step, and then another. "Where will we go?" asked the princess. "To a land far away called Florida. There you will find freedom and the answers to all of your questions," answered the stable boy, Peter. The princess took Peter's hand and started the journey with a single hesitant step, and then another. Once they had cleared the castle walls, the steps became easier and they started running. The princess had no idea where she was running to or what she would find, but was excited to be outside of the castle. She briefly worried that her mother, the queen, would be worried and sad that she was leaving. The stable boy wisely said, "You were correct when you said you were of age. It is time for you to stop living your mother's life and start living your own..." Erica woke up panting, as if she had been running for her life. She was drenched in perspiration. She looked at her alarm clock next to her bed and saw that it was only 1:30. She had actually only been asleep a short time. Now what? she asked herself as she lay back down and tried to close her eyes. She couldn't fall back to sleep. In her mind, she kept seeing the castle, Jesse and Nathan, and the stable boy Peter. Gotta go to decaf, she told herself. "SO I WAS a stable boy, huh?" asked Peter later at dinner when Erica told him about the dream. "Yeah, but you rescued me," answered Erica with a loving look. "Freud would have a field day with that dream," Peter stated. "Freud was a coke head," Erica responded. "Did I tell you my bio-dad is sick? He's getting chemo." "No, you didn't. So tell me, what does that mean to you?" Peter inquired carefully. Erica considered her answer before saying, "At first, nothing. I mean after Jesse told me, I asked myself the same question. How does this information affect me? My first thought was 'What goes around comes around.' But then I started thinking that, if he dies, I would have to live with the way things are the rest of my life. I'd never get the chance to resolve anything. And nobody deserves to be that sick. He's getting chemotherapy. Nobody deserved what my mother and I got either, but, I don't know. From I can see so far, I've had a narrow view of him. You know what I mean?" Peter smiled and leaned over to kiss her. "My little princess is growing up. Does this mean you want to meet him?" Erica pensively said, "I wouldn't go that far, but I'm just saying, I may not have as much time as I thought to think about. I say 'One step at a freaking time.' Okay? Let's get to Florida and see my brothers and take it, what do they say, in 12 steps? 'Take one day at a time.'" "Sounds like a plan," Peter said, with a satisfied smile, "Hey, are you gonna finish those fries? I'm still hungry. Hey, how do you know about 12 steps? Is there something you want to tell me? Erica smiled and said, "I actually listened in health class and my Mom is a doc, right?" Erica knew a little something about life that he didn't. "I actually went to a meeting once with my uncle. They called it an 'open meeting.' It was weird... all these coffee drinking, cigarette smoking guys, reliving their drinking days. I didn't get it." "I hope you never need to or I'll kick your ass!" Erica said. "Here take these fries." THE DAY BEFORE the planned departure to Florida, Erica's mom, step-father, and Peter's parents surprised them with a small barbecue party at Erica's house. All the family and some of their friends from high school were there. Since they would be gone the entire summer, their families wanted a sendoff celebration. What they were doing was a big step on so many levels; more so for Erica, but for Peter as well. There were presents that were things they would need on their trip that they either hadn't thought of or were too busy to consider or obtain themselves. There was even a big "Bon Voyage" cake that was white cake with chocolate frosting - Erica's favorite. Afterwards, everyone hugged and cried, but the excitement for the upcoming trip was heightened. After the party, Erica was helping clean up when she approached her step-father and asked if they could go for a walk and talk. She wanted to tell him that, even though she had been preoccupied of late with meeting her older brothers and was going off with her boyfriend, she would always love and respect him as her father. "My only father," she told him. They held each other tightly and her step-father whispered in her ear, "I'm so very proud of you Erica. I just don't want you to get hurt, even though sometimes we have to get hurt to grow." Where had she heard that before? That night, she knocked on her brother's door; he was playing video games or doing whatever 13-year-old boys do behind closed doors. She really didn't need to know. "I just wanted to tell you I'm going to miss you, little man. Will you e-mail me every day and tell me what's going on here at home?" "No," he replied. "How about once a week?" "Deal!" she said and gave him a high five. "They're your half-brothers, too? Just like me?" he asked. "Yep," she answered, "but I don't know them like I know you." "Well, they better be good to you or I'll come there and kick their asses," Johnny said with emotion. That's when Erica started to cry again.

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