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After their talk from the night before, the last thing Iya expected was for Max to call her at work the next day. She was deeply engrossed in reports, trying to bury her exhaustion and inner turmoil under work. She almost didn’t answer but ended up picking up her phone out of sheer resignation.
“What exactly did you and Joan talk about?” He asked without preamble. He sounded angry.
“During the conversation where you dissected how unfaithful a husband I am, what exactly did you tell her?”
“Nothing really. She told me she’d seen you cozying up to another doctor at work and that a nurse she knows at Bloomfeld-Hyman, some girl she went to school with, had told her that there were rumors that you and this woman are having an affair. I told her that it probably was just a work rumor. But she later told Eposi that she’d spoken some more with her friend and that another nurse who lives in the same condo as Mabel had told her that you spend the night there sometimes. Eposi was concerned and told me. I told her I will ask you about it or talk to Mabel myself.” She heard him groan and curse under his breath. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Well, she’s been talking at Ekwang Parlor. Someone called her out for how rude she was to me last night and she felt the need to defend herself. People have been texting me, Iya.”
Iya’s heart sank.
“Max… I am so sorry.”
“Massa, Iya…. this is really too much na. How am I supposed to deal with all this right now?”
She didn’t reply. Couldn’t reply. What could she possibly say?
“It’s not like we can tell the truth…” He said with a bitter laugh. “And we both know this marriage probably is over, so when we divorce I’m the one who will end up with the reputation for cheating on my wife.”
“This wasn’t how we were supposed to end up, Iya. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.”
Iya remained silent.
“I wish you had told me about what happened to you. I really wish you had. I don’t know how I would have reacted, but I really wish you had, at least, trusted me enough to tell me. I’m so angry but I don’t know who to be angry with. You? Sebastian? His parents? Kyle Hammond? Myself?”
The silence stretched between them.
“I want nothing more than for this to be over, for both of us to find equilibrium and peace again. You’ve had to deal with so much already, I’m not so selfish as to ask you to open that can of worms so I get off the hook. I would ask that we work on the marriage but from every indication you want to be with Sebastian so I won’t ask you that. I will be honest and say I don’t know how to fix this Iya. I don’t know how this ends without one of us taking the fall for it.”
“I don’t know either Max.” Iya whispered.
“Anyway, I gotta go. Even Ndolo is texting me, she said you spoke to her and asked bizarre questions?”
“Yeah… I called her.” Iya said wearily. “It was back in February when Lorie told me about your visit and her fears that you knew about Sebastian. I didn’t know what was going on with you…we no longer really talk. I was trying to get a gauge of where your mind was. You and her are very close.”
“Just keep Ndolo out of it from here onward.” He said testily. “Whatever problems we have are between me and you.”
“I can’t believe you’d even involve her, Iya. Seriously.”
“I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up before she could say anything else.
Iya leaned forward her chair and massaged her temples. Her mind raced from thought to thought as she tried to sort the problem into defined tasks she could deal with. Damn Joan with her big mouth, why did she have to go talking? In Ekwang parlor no less. How in the world was she going to deal with this? It would be completely unfair to let Max take the fall. The gossip would be vicious. The news would surely reach their families back home and the embarrassment for his parents would be huge. He was right that things would be different if they intended to stay together and work on the marriage, but that wasn’t going to happen. Between the fact that she and Sebastian had rekindled their affair and the fact that she’d lied to him from the onset, she doubted there was much left to the marriage. That left the option to come clean herself, but she couldn’t exactly put out a public service announcement to their family and friends to say that she was the one who had broken his trust first, that would only lead to more questions.
A feeling of helpless confusion swept over her. A surge of complete panic. She started trembling, her palms became sweaty and a deep throbbing pain started in her chest. Suddenly, her office felt too hot, the air stuffy and thick, she felt like she was choking. Her vision blurred and her everything seemed to fade away.
Take slow deep breaths… In…2…3…4…5…. Out…2…3…4…5… In…2…3…4..5… Out…2…3…4…5… Come on sweetheart, breathe with me….. In…2…3…4…5…
She heard Sebastian’s voice from a distance and latched on to it, letting the soothing baritone calm her frayed nerves, following his instructions blindly.
Relax… I’m right here love, I’m not going any where. OK? Alright, you know the drill. Curl your toes… Squeeze tight… 2…3…4…5 Relax. Ok, now your feet. Contract…. 2…3…4…5 Relax. I got you, baby. I got you. Now your calves, contract..2…3…4…5…
She let his voice walk her through the exercises, contracting and relaxing each muscle group as he prompted, breathing slowly. Eventually her heart slowed down and she could breathe normally. She stood up on shaky legs and walked to the small refrigerator Lorie kept stocked with her favorite brands of fizzy water and juice. A couple of sips of water later, she felt like herself again.
The panic attacks had started about 2 months after her rape, triggered by her first encounter with Kyle since the night it happened. Years had passed but she still remembered the day like it was yesterday. She’d managed to avoid Adelaide, Kyle and that whole group for the rest of the semester and all it had taken was one chance encounter to completely unravel her. She’d been in the student cafeteria, standing in line at Chipotle. She’d not really been paying attention to her surroundings until she’d heard a chuckle, a sinister and familiar chuckle, the sound louder because of a lull in the wave of conversation around her. That was all it took. A chuckle. Suddenly, she was back in that room, her mind a clouded mess, her body open and vulnerable and Kyle’s face above hers. A chuckle and then a flash. That was when he’d started taking pictures of her naked body.
She had looked around the cafeteria, frantically trying to locate the source of the chuckle, praying it wasn’t him but there he was seated at a table with a group of his friends. As though he felt her stare on him, he looked in her direction and their eyes met. He didn’t recognize her immediately but she knew the moment he did because his eyes flashed with realization and then something that looked like predatory anticipation. She’d left the cafeteria in a hurry. That night she’d had her first panic attack. She’d hidden them from Sebastian, using the internet to research coping mechanisms for panic attacks. He didn’t find out until almost a year later when he’d tried to kiss her for the first time and she had a full blown breakdown. He’d ended up holding her hand through hundreds of them.
She’d hidden them from Max too, but by the time they’d married, the attacks had become more infrequent. This was her first panic attack in almost a year.
Her desk phone buzzed then Lorie spoke.
“Mr. Roth is here to see you, Mrs. Litumbe.”
Sebastian. She hadn’t called him back from the previous night.
“Send him in, Lorie. Thank you.”
Seconds later Sebastian walked in, his face creased in worry. He walked over to her side of the desk and she stood up to hug him. He didn’t let her go immediately.
“Hello, darling. Are you alright?”
Somehow, no matter where he was, he always seemed to know when she was upset.
“No, not really.” She replied, her voice shaky. As they stood there holding each other, she told him all that had transpired, the conversation with Max, the recent development with Joan.
“Awww hell…” He kissed her forehead gently.
“I know, Bas. I am so confused. I don’t know what to do.”
“You could just let it blow over. I’m sure eventually people will have other things to talk about.”
“Yes, but when we divorce it will be unearthed and rehashed. And what worries me the most is family back home, especially his family. They are good people. They don’t deserve this. Max doesn’t deserve this. And then when you step into the picture, it’s going to be yet another round of talk and embarrassment for him. “
“You didn’t deserve anything that happened to you either, Iya.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“All this could have been avoided if I’d had the balls to marry you instead of Kate.”
Iya said nothing. The pain of his rejection was something she no longer allowed herself to feel. That rejection was what had driven her into Max’s arms and set off the chain of events that landed her in the mess she was currently in. The day he told her he was going to marry Kate was one of the worst days of her life, right up there with the day she got raped. She’d known their love was doomed but a small part of her had hoped he’d buck the rules and stay with her. He’d gone above and beyond in almost every other aspect. She had first been shocked, then enraged and then completely heartbroken. She’d considered leaving Morrison & Roth but it had been the middle of the recession and not the best time to be switching jobs. Eventually, they’d become civil to each other but the tension between them had remained. Max had moved to the US by then and she’d turned to him for support, taking the love she still had for Sebastian and tucking it away deep in the recesses of her heart, until that trip, until he’d approached her in that hotel room. She wasn’t sure she’d completely forgiven him for leaving her. If the mess of frustration and anger now boiling in her stomach as she thought about it was any indication, she definitely had not forgiven him completely. She still did not understand completely why she’d opened up herself to him again after all this time. They had not even had that conversation.
“Yes, it could have. But you still married her. You still left me, after everything.”
She felt him tense up at her softly delivered accusation. Then he breathed out deeply.
“I know, Iya. I’m sorry. I hate myself for making that choice. It was a cowardly thing to do.”
“I’m never letting you go again.”
She did not believe him.