Upside Down

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From Book 5: We Find the Path And Make Amends. Philosophy is the enemy of progress. This scene is very new (just a week or two old), but I think the bones are there.

She turned away from him before she could see the hurt in his eyes. Before the pain in her own heart could make her say something even worse. Before she could flee, he touched her wrist, stopping her in her tracks.

“Lanie. Wait.”

She kept her face turned away. “I’m sorry. I’ve been letting the stress get to me.” Plus, extended abstinence doesn’t do anything for my mood like it does for you.

“I’m sorry. I remember how frustrated I was when you were pregnant and didn’t want to be touched. The last thing I want is to deprive you, I just…” He gazed up at the ceiling, as though the words he needed were written up there somewhere. Grasping her shoulders gently, he pled with those devastating eyes for her to understand. “I treasure you. I don’t think you understand how much you mean to me. How much this marriage means to me. Even if it’s rocky at times. When it comes down to just you and me, at the centre of it all, I can’t breathe for how integral you are to my being. Every day I regret how I used to treat people, how I used to treat sex as though it was no more important than Chow mein or videogames. When I’m with you, I’m reminded why I made that pact in the first place – because I knew it wasn’t supposed to leave me feeling empty after. I knew that it was supposed to be more. It was the more that I was reaching for by doing it more often or with more people or in more elaborate ways. But I came to realize that it wasn’t the way to get what I wanted. I knew that there was some Holy Grail out there, one that I couldn’t quite describe, but if I looked for it, and committed to becoming worthy of it, it would fill this hole that I have inside of me.”

Whatever philosophical power boost he seemed to get from his dry spells, Lanie couldn’t relate. Maybe she was going through withdrawals. Except that she wasn’t addicted, not like he was. She was just a normal woman who needed to get away from it all on a regular basis. Transcend her physical form. Reach nirvana, or whatever. And Ben had put her in a tricky position, again, because she would never cheat on him, but for one reason or another, they seemed to have one interruption after another when it came to their sex life. She wasn’t sure how much more she could take.

But, as usual, Ben was on a roll, so he kept going. “Being with you has done that. Partially, anyway. Except for the last time. Last time, I felt sick. I hated myself, just like the last few times before I made the pact, when it was really starting to sink in that the way I was living wasn’t doing it for me anymore. You’re the last person I want to have regrets with, Lanie. Even if you don’t mind me this way, I mind. I want space to figure out what’s been making this hole bigger again. Not until I can be sure that I’m not just knocking back shots of you like you’re nothing more than a glass of gin. I’d hate myself if I treated you like nothing more than a pleasure object.”

She sighed, shaking her head. “But if it can make you feel better, even if only for a few minutes, why not? I promise you’re not hurting me. I can’t offer you a lot in terms of traditional wifely duties. I can’t cook, I don’t clean, I’m not going to iron your shirts or have the children clean and perfect when you get home from work. What I can do is blow your mind with pleasures that you haven’t even thought up yet. That’s the one thing I was taught that can actually help you, so why don’t you let me?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Because it’s not how I see you.”

“It’s what I am. I am a sex object, Ben. I’m not pretty like Lilah or useful like Ruth, or even spirited like Annalise.” She shrugged. “But I’m in shape. I’m flexible. Moldable. You can shape me however you want. Whatever will give you what you need. It’s something I can do.”

His own mantra didn’t change the sadness and surprise in his expression. “You don’t think you’re pretty?”

“Being pretty and being sexy aren’t the same thing. I know I’m sexy. I’m most men’s wildest fantasy, or so I’ve been told. Everyone is attractive in their own way.” Really, if she wasn’t bothered by it, why was he? “It’s not a big deal. It’s definitely been an advantage.” Even if it was also an advantage to those who wanted to force their own agenda on her.

“Melanie.” The exhalation of her name drew her from her bitter thoughts and made her look at him fully. She wasn’t aware his expression could grow even sadder, but it did.

She cocked her head at him. “Bennett?”

He reached into his pocket for his phone. “Come here.”

It was a photo that she didn’t recognize. An extreme closeup of her face, with her hand tucked behind her ear and several wisps of her hair floating out in front of her. She appeared to be surrounded by a gauzy white fabric that partly obscured her. With a soft smile on her face, she seemed to be looking down at something. Confusion filled her.

“When was this?”

“A few weeks ago. Dre took it, actually. When the girls were playing with you outside, they were using that old white curtain to build a fairy land. They put it on your head to make you a princess, just as the wind picked up and blew your hair, just like that.” He spoke reverently as he looked at the image, and she had the uncanny feeling that she was being cheated on. This wasn’t her. If anything, this could have been a picture of Fiona, with her naïve innocence and dreamy optimism.

But Fiona was dead. Even though Lanie could vaguely remember the day, she couldn’t remember this moment, and certainly couldn’t remember whatever feelings had given her this strangely serene expression.

Ben smiled at the screen. “This is how I think of you. In church, the very next sermon after you helped me with the salve, Pastor Bob quoted first Peter when he was talking about how Christ sees his believers: ‘Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.’ ”

He put the phone away, then held her waist. With a small, self-mocking grin, he peered down at her. “Permission to go on and on?”

As if he hadn’t been doing that already. She rolled her eyes and braced herself. “I suppose.”

His smile widened briefly, before seriousness settled over him once again. “I thought of you, my Lanie. You are my exact opposite. You never care about clothes or makeup or a jewellery. No matter what I do to get you interested in that gorgeous hair and breathtaking skin of yours, it’s the last thing on your mind. Yet even though you refuse collagen and B complexes and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you put on sunscreen, I know that your beauty will never fade, no matter what happens to your body. You may not cook or clean, and I know that you’ve got a lot of garbage taking up space in your head, just like me, but it’s your quiet strength and unexpected gentleness that attracted me to you from the moment I first saw you. It’s what draws me deeper into you every day.”

His hands moved from her waist to her brow. Her heart beat faster as she watched him watching her. Would he ever cease to dazzle her? It wasn’t that he was handsome. It was that he was just as dazzled by her, and not in a superficial way. Whenever she was around him she felt so raw and exposed, walking around with her heart held out for him to do with as he pleased.

When he traced the edges of her cheekbones, goosebumps rose on her skin, despite the warmth of his touch. “Your face, Lanie, oh, your beautiful face – that’s what makes me sure that there’s a God. There’s no way you could be some cosmic accident. The way I feel for you can’t be just chemicals and electrical impusles moving around in my head meat. The way I feel about you makes me sure that I have a soul. You must have been divinely inspired, with love, signed, sealed and delivered, just for me. And when I think about our kids? Well, the thought could kill me. When I look at you, and especially when you look like that photo – no makeup, nothing remotely sexual on display – I think I’m seeing the moment that God fell in love with you. When he decided not to wipe out Adam and Eve, He had that image of you in the back of his mind – and everything else was worth it just for that moment to be part of the fabric of the universe.”

She was frozen, right on the precipice of an emotion so devastatingly potent that it would decimate her if she let it take her. Something was cracking again, way back in the safe place where the bad things were supposed to stay. That Voice wanted to speak, but she couldn’t let it – no, not even for a second. She couldn’t move or breathe. One wrong move, and the dam would burst, sending her out into the ether.

He kept going, and she was powerless to stop him. “When I realized how God sees you, Lanie, and when I thought about how He designed sex and marriage, and what I did to you, I…I realized I need to do better. You’re His daughter. His precious creation. And I have no business being with you unless I’m prepared to treat you as such.”

A hint of self-loathing had crept back into his tone, and Lanie felt as though her frustration would eat her alive. Why, why, why did they always seem to end up on opposite sides of this issue? “Those are some pretty high standards, B. Unattainable, if you ask me.”

“Then I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to be a man worthy of you. Worthy of our family.”

“But if you believe Jesus died for your unworthiness or whatever, why do you think you need to prove anything?”

This seemed to stump him. He blinked, tilting his head at her. “Well…” But he didn’t seem to have an answer.

She put her hands on his chest. “I’m glad you’ve found something to be passionate about, Ben. But please, can we keep that two-thousand-year-old dead guy out of our bedroom? The only person I need in there is you. Imminently. Before I explode. The fact that you’ve said all those things proves to me that even though you had a slip up, you’re back to worshiping the ground I walk on and wouldn’t dare to profane the temple of my body with unholy thoughts about a hit and run. This isn’t healthy for either of us, and all I want is to see you happy. I may not be God, but I can give you a few hours of happiness on this rare day off before the kids come back. Please?”

But of course, Bennet Murray Goldberg was the most stubborn man on earth when he was on a mission. Whatever misguided idea he had of proving his worthiness to have sex with her by not having sex with her had deeper roots than she could have imagined. She could clearly read in his expression that he was quite tempted by her offer, but also hated to disappoint her. He sighed, and she nearly fought him when he pulled her head to his chest, stroking her hair down her half-naked back. Not the platonic, conciliatory hug. Anything but that. She was being friend-zoned by her husband. No, worse – she was being “sister-in-Christed” by her husband.

“Can you at least let me pray about it?”

She moaned, and not in the way she wanted to be moaning.

“Please, Lanie. Something’s wrong with me. I’m trying to figure it out, and I hope I do soon, but I could really use your support right now.”

She swallowed down every retort that her deprived brain could think of. She tried to listen, really listen, to what he was saying. He’d dug his heals in, and now, anything she tried to do to move him would only prolong this latest obsession. Going along with him was the best thing, nudging him whenever she could, until he was thinking rationally again. Showing him that he was perfectly fine, and just a normal person going through a midlife-crisis. Well, maybe not quite midlife, but it certainly had all the hallmarks.

Even more than that, she wasn’t sure that she could actually fix this for him. She couldn’t protect him from this. If this was between him and his God, she had little hope of standing her ground against whatever was being birthed inside him.

She sighed against him, finally embracing him. “Of course, B. I’d do anything for you. You know that.”

You’d better not break his heart like you did with mine, she seethed, as she held a little tighter to the man who was like her own soul.

Right back at you, little one.

 

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~ Romans 15:13

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