De'Juan's thick fingers dug into Jordan's tender throat and pressed so tight that not a bit of air could sneak into her starved lungs. She tried to relax her body by thinking about times when they laughed, when she snuggled into his arms and they watched television. Those made her want to stay. Jordan forced herself to relive the moment when they first kissed. His lips worked as though they received the same signals as her lips.
Jordan had just managed to relax her hands a little when he pressed her against the wall. Part of her wanted him to hold on too long: that way he wouldn't be able to do it again. Tiny black speckles filled the room around her as she began to loose her thoughts and concentration. As though he knew the exact moment, he let go. She gasped, coughed and a high pitched whistle sounded when she breathed in and announced the rush of oxygen to her blood supply. She slid to the ground. The pain of air rushing all at once past her sore throat ached worse than the joy of finally being able to breath. Every muscle in her body felt out of control as they shook, even after her breathing returned to normal.
He kneeled. The back of his rough fingers slid along her cheeks. She didn't dare recoil.
"Why do you do these things?" De'Juan asked. He spoke softly: like he spoke to a child. "Why you get me so angry?" He laid his hands on top of hers and leaned toward her.
He truly was a kind soul. She only angered him, and although it was on accident . . . some of the time . . . she could only take blame for what happened afterwards. There were consequences to actions, and she loved him too much to leave just because they had arguments every now and again.
He held her chin and pulled her face up to his, "Don't ignore me."
She did it, again. Instead of answering him right away, she made him wait. She knew that he hated waiting. "I don't know."
He leaned in and touched his lips to hers. That's what she needed: the soft touches that proved he loved her. Her throat still burned, but the kisses soothed more than water.
"I know you're not perfect," he stated as he pulled away from her.
She wanted to pull him back to her and get lost in his simple touches, but she learned once before that he didn't like to be interrupted, even if it was for kissing. He needed to be in control. He was the man in the relationship, after all, and all a man truly cared about was pride.
"I love you," he said.
She nodded and smiled. Those words made her feel so special. De'Juan stared intensely and his thick lips trembled. Once again, she selfishly thought about herself instead of him. "I love you, too," she said it sweetly, but quick enough to abate his anger. His face softened. He kissed her again, and, again, he pulled away and left her aching for his kisses like she had once ached for air.
He pulled out a ring box. The air had left her lungs and a fear seeped into her bones. She forced a smile. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt his pride. She shouldn't be afraid, anyway. Marrying him would change things for them both, and they would be happy together. All she had to do was keep him happy; keep him from becoming angry.
Jordan sat at the table across from De'Juan as they ate in the food court. He went with her to try on wedding dresses, despite her and the other women telling him that it was bad luck for him to be there. He only wanted to be a part of her life. No one knew her better than him. De'Juan left to put his tray up, but she continued to, as he put it, nurse her food.
He bought so much for her: clothes, hair accessories and jewelry. He bought it all because he loved her. It wasn't the items that proved he loved her, but the fact that she meant more to him than money or moments of his life he could never get back.
A man sat down at the other table, across from her. He smiled and she politely smiled back.
"How you doing?" he asked. His smile widened and dimples deepened. It seemed that whenever things were working out perfectly in her life, other things came to distract her. When she found her perfect job, another one, just as perfect, came along. Whenever she settled on a beautiful wedding dress, they walked past one that looked just as beautiful. And now, now that their relationship was better, a man, who was just as cute and seemed as nice, came along and actually paid attention to her.
She smiled, "Good. My fiancé is doing just as well." She couldn't help but laugh. It was more of a giggle; silent yet defined, cruel yet playful. He looked back down at his plate as De'Juan gently squeezed her shoulder.
"Put your plate up," he said. "It's time to go."
She stood quickly and followed him to a trashcan. Stupid; so stupid. She should have kept quiet or just said fine. Why did she have to defiantly announce that the man had no chance with her? She shouldn't have giggled. No. She shouldn't have looked up at him. Her eyes should have been focused on the plate of food and her mind on De'Juan. She deserved whatever he would do to her.
And then a part of her panicked. She didn't want bruises on her body: only on those places that would be hidden by modest clothes. She didn't want to be left on the floor gasping for air. She would be selfish, and although she deserved it, she would find a way to keep him from punishing her; even if it were just for a little while.
They got into his car. He sat there; his hands trembled on the steering wheel.
He looked her in the eyes, finally. "What is wrong with you?"
"What do you . . . "
"Don't," he barked. And he was right. She didn't need to play ignorant. She knew exactly what he meant. "What is wrong with you?"
"He asked me how I was, and I told him that I and my fiancé were doing fine."
He sat there. His jaws worked back and forth as he ground his teeth and tried to sooth his nerves. She hoped it worked. She prayed it worked. He turned to her. "I didn't . . . " he started off just fine; soft and soothing, speaking to her as though she were a child, but in a moment he switched. His fingers curled around some of her hair. He yanked her head toward him, "I didn't ask what happened. I asked what is wrong with you."
"I was being stupid. I'm sorry. It was just for a moment. I was so happy and didn't think about what I was doing."
"Those moments when you don't think can get you into a lot of trouble. You're lucky I was there to stop you before it led to anything else."
"Yes, I am." She forced herself to breath normally. "Thank you." He let go of her hair. As she straightened up, he kissed her cheek.
He sat there a few more moments. His jaws continued to move back and forth, but slowed as he calmed down. He finally started to drive. "We still going to your Mom's?"
"Yes," she hoped it didn't sound desperate.
"Who all's going to be there?"
"Jen and Josh. Gina's going to be there, too. Her husband is coming along. So while I try on the dress with the women, you can hang with the guys."
He stopped the car suddenly, and the car behind him honked. He started up again. She did something wrong. She could tell; although she couldn't tell what.
"Don't ever tell me what to do. If I want, I'll be with you when you try on the dress."
"I just thought . . . "
"Don't. Ever. That's why I'm with you; so you don't have to think."
She sat tight-lipped the rest of the way there. He confused her; should she think or not think. One got her in trouble, while the other she should leave up to him, and those were the only two choices.
When they pulled up to the house, everyone was already there. Her brother and sister, Jen and Josh, were at the front door offering congratulations and her friend Gina sat in the den with her mother.
Josh immediately offered De'Juan a drink downstairs. Jordan followed Jen into the den. Gina hopped up as quickly as her mother, and they both hugged and congratulated her.
"There's so much to go over," Gina pulled Jordan down on the couch beside her. "What kind of bachelorette party do you want?"
"She should tell me," Jen chimed in, "since I'll be throwing it for her."
"In your dreams. The maid of honor throws the party."
"That's exactly what I mean."
They both looked over at Jordan, who could do nothing but smile. Only a week had passed since he asked the question, but she only concerned herself with his happiness. "There can be two maids of honor," she finally answered.
They both looked at one another with pursed lips and loose eyes. Her mother came to the rescue and said, "I want to see the dress you picked out."
Jordan wasted no time standing up quickly. She felt trapped, again, in a small space with hardly any air to breath. She went to the master bedroom and pulled the dress from the box. It looked more beautiful than ever, hanging from her trembling hands.
Her unnamed fear eased a bit as she stood before the mirror wearing the dress. She smoothed down the front part over her tummy. The thin short sleeved jacket shared the same lacy heart pattern as the dress, but De'Juan had other reasons for insisting that she wore it. She turned her back to the mirror and lowered the jacket. Black and blue finger marks speckled her honey-colored back.
It won't be like this, she thought. He loves me, and once I learn my place, this won't happen. We'll be happy together.
The door banged open, and Jordan pulled the jacket up and turned in one swift movement. Gina stood motionless in front of the door, but Jen pushed her out of the way, laughing.
"Her first maid of honor should be the one to help her dress."
Gina said nothing to the gentle prod. She stood there, not moving, not speaking, was she breathing?
Jen sat on the bed in front of Jordan.
"Both of you," Jordan forced a smile, "are equal maids of honor."
"I love it," Jen breathed. "But what's with the jacket."
"It matches the dress, which is sleeveless. I want something on my arms." She prayed that Gina would just forget what she saw. Situations were different, and although he laid hands on her, De'Juan loved her. She twirled for Jen.
"Just take the jacket off," Jen said. "I want to see how it looks without it."
"I'm going to wear it no matter what."
"Just to see. Gina, what do you think?"
Jordan stared at her, not letting up one bit on the gaze. Either she would tell, and Jordan would have to figure out how to get De'Juan safely out of the house, or she wouldn't.
Gina finally spoke, "I think she should go show her mom."
Jen hopped up off the bed and practically ran from the room. Jordan followed behind her.
Her mother loved the jacket, and insisted that if Jordan wanted it, then it would stay that way. Jordan noticed how quiet Gina had become, but said nothing.
Jordan had changed her clothes and spent a good hour talking before De'Juan came up. Jordan realized that she hadn't even seen her dad. She would have to go downstairs and say goodbye.
De'Juan leaned against the wall as Jordan said her goodbyes. Gina never stopped staring at De'Juan, and before long he noticed. Their eyes locked in a silent battle.
"What about your co-workers," her mom said, as though they were in the middle of a conversation instead of at the end.
"They're all happy for me," Jordan relayed. She hoped the subject wouldn't be raised. They just wouldn't understand.
"When are you taking off for your honey moon?"
"Ah . . . well . . . "
De'Juan finally spoke up, "She quit."
Their collective gasps shook her. He had no right. She should have been the one to break the news.
"It's okay, really. De'Juan makes enough money for the both of us, and I want to be a homemaker, anyway."
"Since when," her mom's voice grew stern for the first time in years. "You've always wanted to be a lawyer, and you worked your butt off to get this degree."
"My hours were terrible, Mom, I would never have time for my family." Her voice trailed off at the end. Her mom never had time for them due to her career. Jordan never wanted work to come before her children.
Her mom sucked sharply and held her lips tight. "Whatever," the air escaped with the word. "If you're going to throw away your career for a man, that's your business." She fled downstairs. Jordan needed to get away before her father could come up and join the argument.
Jordan spoke to everyone in the room, "I'll see you all later."
De'Juan held the door open for her. He smiled a little too wide. She wanted to hate him, but after a second thought she realized he was right for speaking up. She didn't need to keep anything from her family. There should be no lies or secrets between them. She smiled at the realization that he was after her best interest.
Gina walked to the door and called out, "I'll call you later."
"She'll be busy," De'Juan called out. He slid into the driver's seat as she shut her door. "I don't like her," he stated matter-of-factly. "You shouldn't hang out with her."
"She's my maid of honor. I can't just ignore her."
"She can be your maid of honor, but I don't want you talking to her."
She left the conversation at that. Gina and she had been friends for as long as she could remember. They grew up together, and the thought of ignoring her made Jordan sad, but if De'Juan thought it was best, it must be.
Jordan cleaned up the house: dirty clothes, dirty dishes, dirty everything. How could a man leave everything so dirty after just one day? She had spent the morning doing chores, and by eleven everything had been done. Something would have to change, because nothing would keep her busy enough and certainly nothing would keep her enthralled like contracts or gathering documents for court.
The door bell rang and as she walked past the window, she caught a glimpse of the car. Gina. She stood frozen for a second. If De'Juan came home for lunch, she would be in trouble. Maybe he wouldn't be home until noon, which gave them an hour to talk. Jordan knew why she came by. If she didn't answer the door, Gina might tell her family what she saw. If De'Juan only knew, he would understand why she opened the door. She needed to convince Gina that everything was okay.
She opened the door.
"Hey," Jordan smiled.
Gina didn't smile back. "Let's go out for coffee, somewhere."
"I can't. I need to be here for when De'Juan comes back."
"I want to see him and spend some time with him."
"I'm sure he would understand if you went out with me."
"Well, yeah, he would, but I want to be here for him."
Gina laughed a little, and put her hand through her hair, "You know what. Let's just stop the pretense." She pressed her way into the house. "Why would you let a man put his hands on you?"
"I don't let him. I make him mad sometimes, and what do people do when they get mad?"
"They yell, they scream, but when they lay hands on you, it's time to go. This is ridiculous! The amount of marks on your back . . . I . . . I just don't understand this."
"It'll get better!"
She huffed and turned her back on Jordan. "Better!"
"No," Jordan walked in front of her, "don't turn your back on me."
"There!" she exclaimed so suddenly. "That's who you are. I should have seen this. Every time we hung out together, with him around, you were so quiet and changed. I should have known something was up. I thought you were still just shy around him, but after all this time." She grew quiet, "For three years, he did this to you?"
"No." How could she explain it? All the mistakes she had made, and he helped her out of. All of the times she said something with the intentions of hurting him, what else would she expect? "He loves me."
"He's always loved me."
"You know what I'm asking. How long?"
"Maybe a year and a half."
She gasped and stared, like Jordan was a sick stranger walking before her.
"He loves me, though. People always have fights."
"Bobbie and I fight, but if he ever laid a hand on me . . . "
"He loves me. I'm his Princess."
Her laugh came suddenly and stung deep. "He calls you that? His Princess?" she almost spat the words out. "Is he your father or your superior?"
She wanted to say the second, but stopped herself. Gina would think she was brainwashed, but how could she know it was the truth if she hadn't seen them together.
"How did you get this way? Did your dad abuse you when you were little?"
Jordan wanted to answer her back with hatred. Gina didn't understand anything. How dare she make such a statement? But Jordan kept quiet not because of self-control, but because memories flashed through and cut deep as they went: Memories of pain, sore chests and backs and throats. Her body could tolerate De'Juan's abuse, but only because they were moments of nostalgia.
Maybe her dad beat her mother, and all her mother could do in response was watch him beat Jordan. And what of Jen and Josh? Did they have these long lost memories, too? Jordan was the oldest, but growing up she could not remember bruises other than normal ones.
What of her children? If she ever became pregnant, would she just watch De'Juan ruin her children's lives? She pressed the fresh bruise on her arm. The pain sent chills through her. How would it feel to little children too young to know what love felt like without pain? She barely knew who she was at that moment with the memories coursing through her mind like lifeblood.
Gina grabbed hold of her shoulders. "You can leave him. You have family and me. We'll protect you."
"I know," but she didn't. Would her father protect her, or did he feel as De'Juan did? Did he believe that everything she got, she deserved?
"I'll help you pack your bags," Gina said. "I'm sure your parents will let you stay over."
"No," Jordan said firmly. She picked her keys up off of the table. "I'm going to go over there. I need to talk with them."
"You are going to leave though, right?"
She could only manage to tiniest nod, but Gina accepted it. "Good. You got us to stay with, too, if he starts bothering you there. I don't think he knows where we live, does he? We always met out."
"Yeah." They left the house. "Listen. I want to go to my parents alone."
"I'll give you a call if I need to stay with you."
"Yeah. I'm heading back to work, but here are the keys; just in case. If you don't use them, I'll swing by your parents to pick them up. But not by here, Jordan. I better not have to swing by here."
She wanted to say "You won't," but the words stuck in her throat. Gina left the driveway and Jordan shortly afterwards. She drove to her parents' house in a trance.
Her mother opened the door. Jordan nodded and said hi, but passed her by and headed down stairs. How many beatings did her mother endure? How many was Jordan willing to take in order to keep her children from getting them?
Her father stood as she walked up to the couch. He gave her a hug, but she didn't respond. She wanted answers. She wanted the truth, not false love.
"I didn't get to see you yesterday," he said as he left the one sided embrace. "Congratulations. I hope he treats you well, Princess."
"Don't call me that," she snapped. He paused at her stiff words. "I want you to tell me something, Dad. Tell me about the memories I'm having; the flashes of pains and sores. About how I was beat."
He grew quiet for what seemed like minutes. She could hardly believe all the anger and hurt that came out in that moment. She could understand De'Juan's behavior, but why couldn't she understand her dad's?
"I hoped you were too young to remember those times."
"Why did it have to happen?" she sobbed. "Did I do something to deserve it?" Her cheeks grew warm.
"No, Baby," he hugged her again, and through her convulsed sobs, she accepted it. "Your mom was going through a lot of pressure, and didn't know how to handle a child, yet." Jordan stopped sobbing; no, she just stopped breathing. "I told her, though, that she had to stop, or I would take you away. She didn't want to loose you, Baby. She loved you, as she does now."
Jordan pulled away from him, and turned to the stairs. Her mother had obviously come down behind her. She leaned against the wall with cheeks as shiny as Jordan's. Everything changed for the second time that day.
Jordan rushed up the stairs. Her mom called after her, "I love you, Jordan. I never meant to hurt you! I'm so sorry."
And her father's voice came through just as clearly, "Let her go, Linda. She has to deal with this."
Jordan stopped in the driveway and fell to her knees. She coughed and sputtered as her throat closed up on her. She lost her family and fiancé all in one day. How would she handle things now? What could she do? She could not remember a moment in her life when she was fully on her own. She forced herself to stand. She pried the engagement ring off of her finger and tossed it into the grass. Her legs wouldn't work as the questions rolled around in her mind: What do I do? How can I make it? She forced herself to pull out the car key and Gina's house key. Her body quaked as she breathed in.
One breath at a time, she thought. One breath at a time.