“Are you serious?” her cousin asked. “Your boyfriend hit you, you had to break up and move out, your job fell through—how could I not worry?”
“I’m not the first person to deal with it, I’m sure.” Mary tried to downplay it all. “Honestly, the worst thing is that he destroyed the sewing machine.”
“No, the worst thing is that he hit you. I know how much you loved it, but the machine can be replaced.” Allie sighed. “Really, Mary. Are you okay?”
“I am, honest,” said Mary. “I know it sounds a little crazy, but I guess it happened at the right time around the right people. Karen and Lacey and everyone have been so great. I’m not used to having people to rely on—present company excepted of course.”
“Well, I’m trying to find some time to come see you and meet them but it’s hectic trying to get organized for school. Gabe wants to come, too.”
“Sure, that’d be terrific,” Mary said. “I’d love to see you guys and have you meet everyone. Then maybe you can tell me if I have my head on straight.”
“What’s up?” asked Allie. “What’s wrong? Dean hasn’t done anything else, has he?”
“No.” Mary sighed. “There’s just—there’s a guy and I’m not sure what I think, or should think, about him.”
Allie laughed. “You sure do bounce right back.”
“No, it’s not like that,” Mary said. “I’m mostly trying to put it out of my head right now. I still need to figure things out. I’m not in any shape to start seeing anyone.”
“Probably not,” Allie agreed. “But that doesn’t mean you need to take a certain time to deal with it. Don’t worry about how long you think it ‘should’ take you. If it takes a few days, fine, if it takes a couple of months, fine.”
Mary sighed. “You’re right. I’m just all over the place right now. I’m still mad at him and mad at myself, but I’m glad it’s over, and then, I don’t know, I feel . . .”
“You feel guilty, don’t you?” Allie asked. “Mary. Come on.”
“I feel stupid. Angry. And then guilty.”
“Stupid because of Dean, obviously. Angry at myself because I should have ended that a long time ago. Guilty because they’ve all been so nice and helpful and I’ve just been—I don’t know. I feel like I’m useless and imposing.”
“Mary, you’re being too hard on yourself,” Allie said. “You’ve been through a lot in a short period of time. I’m really glad you’ve met all these people, and that they could help you. I know you, so I know you feel like you owe them—”
“Don’t interrupt,” Allie admonished.
“Anyway, I know you feel like you’re in their debt, but even if you have to think of it that way, worry about it later. Not everything has to be repaid like a bank loan.”
Mary gave a small laugh. “I know, I know. You’re right. I’m trying not to think like that but it’s hard.”
“I know. Look, your mom and Roger, I know they weren’t there for you, so you had to rely on yourself,” Allie said. “And that’s a good thing, but it made you think needing or accepting help is a bad thing. We all need a little help sometimes.”
“You’re right,” said Mary. “You are, I know it.”
“Of course I am,” Allie said primly. “And you’re wise for recognizing it.”
“Even I can see the obvious,” Mary said, laughing.
“Ok. Listen, I have to go, but I’ll come see you soon, okay? Take care, Mary.”
“Thanks. Just let me know when.” Mary disconnected after the women said good-bye.
Her cousin had a point, Mary thought. Mary’s parents had divorced when she was young. Her father traveled for business, and had visited her whenever he could, but her mother had had primary custody.
Both her mother and stepfather had believed a person should be self-reliant, and that asking for help was a sign of weakness. They’d impressed that on both her and her step-brother, Landon. Requests for help as she as growing up, after a certain age, became variations on “look it up.” They would help if necessary, but kept it minimal. Mary had learned quickly to fend for herself at school and socially; she had dreaded anything from school that required parental attention beyond a signature.
It hadn’t gotten easier when she’d found her talents lay in more creative fields. Her father had encouraged her, which she’d appreciated, but her mother and stepfather felt such things were impractical and pushed her to find something more serious, when they bothered to talk to her at all about it.
Spending the majority of her time with people who looked down on what she loved to do was difficult, but Mary refused to give it up. She’d persevered with support from her father and a few others, and waited. She’d bided her time, taking courses at the local community college when she could, working and saving until she found the right opportunity to leave.
She had thought things were looking up a bit when she started seeing Dean. He’d seemed nice, at first. They had a few things in common and although he hadn’t been too impressed with her artistic endeavors, he hadn’t tried to stop her, either. He’d ignored it, Mary realized, and that was positive compared to a lot of her previous experience, and so she’d taken it.
Now that was over, and it hit her that she was glad. Maybe not happy, but relieved to be rid of him, of the constant complaining and negativity, and what she now recognized as the abuse she’d suffered. It might not have been physical until the end, but even with this little bit of hindsight, she could see how he’d pushed buttons and manipulated her.
Coming to the tattoo shop brought it all to a head. He’d ignored and belittled her in front of Karen and Tony, and then had blamed her for making him look bad.
No more of that, she decided. It hadn’t been long, but she already knew she wouldn’t let it happen again. She couldn’t. Since she’d broken up with Dean she felt more relaxed than she had in years, maybe ever. She felt like she finally had the chance to be herself, the way she wanted to be.
That was a chance she didn’t want to lose.
A couple of weeks later life seemed mostly back to normal. At the shop, Tony finished the design for a client and laid the tattoo gun down.
“There you go, all done,” he said.
“Great. Thank you.” His client, a woman named Sharon, smiled at him. She laid her hand on his arm and said, “I really appreciate your work.” She looked pleased with the bird he’d just inked on her arm, a small but colorful cardinal.
She was gorgeous, Tony thought. She had sleek blond hair, blue eyes, an inviting smile and a body he knew people would kill for. But she wasn’t Mary, and he had no interest.
For the millionth time, he wondered what was wrong with him. He’d thought his feelings for Mary had been a result of the stressful circumstances of meeting her, but they hadn’t gone away, and had grown more intense. Since there was nothing he could do about it, he ignored it, as he’d been doing for the last couple of weeks.
Tony made himself focus on his client. “Thanks. Mind if I take a picture?”
“Sure.” Sharon nodded and he snapped a quick photo with his phone to add to his portfolio.
“Hold on a sec, almost done.” Tony gently applied the anti-bacterial ointment, and then the dressing. He could feel Sharon staring at him and wished he had Jackson’s easy way with people. His friend would have flirted, or at least joked with her, but Tony was lost.