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Good Man Jake



In honor of the Holiday of Love, I submit this story of love surmounting every obstacle--physical, emotional, and spiritual.



Good Man Jake

Always the pretty one, she couldn’t have looked prettier. Trim in white satin, white chapel cap, and garters, the matching bouquet of mums. Though pretty was a meaningless distinction in her family where the only competition was her younger sister, Fil. Short for Filomena, the name was fitting, for everything about her was short—arms, legs, even her toes and fingers. Short and shriveled. Fil in her wheelchair ruining her sister’s every chance for happiness just by being there, a test and a turn-off for boys.


So it was with Kyle. Six-two, hammer-jawed Kyle who played three sports and hunted mallards, a he-man who everyone said was made for her. And she had to agree. Always queen-of-this and captain-of-that, smart enough in school and stunning. Naturally so, not one wheaten strand was highlighted, not a single inch girdled or stuffed. Eyes that needed no liner to bring out their blue. Her friends all said, “what you see with Josie is what you get,” and boys like Kyle could get a lot. Provided they didn’t meet Fil.


But eventually, of course, they did. On the third or fourth date, the scene would replay itself. A black-and-white rerun in which her sweet dumb mother would call her down to the living room and she, locked in her room and dreading the inevitable, would dab away the tears and descend gracefully, as if into the perfect family.


And it might have been perfect, her mother standing there with teepeed fingers and head cocked to one side in enchantment. Her father on the couch, a calm, quiet man who worked hard and took pride in his household. In his daughters, one of whom was the whole town’s dream and the other, its nightmare. For, yes, Fil would be there, too. Withered in her wheelchair, arms without shoulders, hands without wrists or thumbs for that matter, legs like a malnourished infant’s. Only her face looked natural, even attractive to the degree it resembled Josie’s, and gentle whenever it lit up.


“Oh, just look at you,” she’d chime and almost succeed in clapping. “Like something out of a storybook!”


Yeah, Josie would think, a storybook about humiliation. About disappointment and pain. For there was Kyle waiting for her in the living room and looking super macho and yet utterly unmanned. Grinning as best he could at Josie but casting horrified glances at Fil as if she were some kind of curse. As though this was what his children could look like, what he’d come home to every night, curdled in his living room.


“Mom, Dad, quickly take a picture!” she’d sing, for Fil never begrudged Josie anything. On the contrary, she exulted in her success and not even vicariously. Which was more than could be said for Josie. She resented the hell out of her sister, wished she would disappear or worse. Once, while eavesdropping on her parents’ conversation with a doctor, hearing how a child in her condition was vulnerable to all sorts of diseases, Josie found herself palpitating. Imagine a life without handicaps, where she could be beautiful without this monstrous asterisk over her head, this witch’s ball warding off men.


“We should get going,” Kyle said nervously. “We’re going to miss the show.” By which he meant, “Let’s go and get this over with, because I’m never going to date you again.” She knew the look and with stomach churning anticipated the outcome.


“Have a great time, you two!” Fil called out as they exited, and Josie wanted to kill her. But first she had to kill Kyle.


And Liam and Wyatt. The experience was always the same. The news flashing around school, her name on everyone’s lips in every hallway and bathroom, together with some heartthrob’s. It continued after graduation, through her years at the local college, and now with her job at the bank. Still living at home, still dating and considered a catch—but a catch that unfortunately came with one.


“I can hardly believe it,” Fil would gasp as her parents looked on admiringly. “Just like in the fairytales.” And each time Josie could cry, “yeah, the fairytales where the princess gets dumped.”


At rare gracious moments, though, Josie felt grateful to her sister. Her mere presence exposed the bad ones, those who might treat Josie unkindly in life, perhaps betray or even beat her. Better to know now, she thought, then five years on when the damage was permanent. She had Fil to thank for that. For being her litmus, her hound dog, for gauging and sniffing out the cruel hearts hidden within handsome exteriors. The ugly posing as hunks.


Which was why Fil surprised her with Jake. Not the alpha type, no athlete or outdoorsman; he wouldn’t have harmed a butterfly, much less a duck. Good-looking but not in the cleft-chinned rugged way, more like angelic. Strawberry hair, creamy complexion, and eyes that seemed to absorb all the sorrow in the world and recycle it as joy. Jake who got her number from somebody who knew somebody who ditched her and yet asked her out anyway, unafraid of what he might find in her living room. Wearily, Josie said yes.


And dejectedly she descended the stairs, no longer bothering with tears, expecting the usual, “Nice-to-meet-you, gotta-go, the-movie-starts-on-time,” routine. But instead there was Jake not merely enduring but chatting avidly with her parents and especially with Fil, asking her questions about her work as an online editor. Fil seemed to enjoy it as well, her face practically illuminated, stumps twitching.


“Gosh,” Jake said—he actually said “gosh”—when he finally looked up at Josie. “It’s quite a family you’ve got here. I guess I got carried away.”


Now it was Josie’s turn to hurry a man out, warning him about missing their reservation, literally tugging his sleeve. Yet later, at the restaurant, she didn’t want to leave. Unlike anybody she’d ever dated, Jake wanted to listen. Her riding trophies, her promotion from teller to Client Manager—he hungered to hear it all. She talked about growing up in a house with a doting mother and a dad who treated her like God. And, more than she meant to, Josie confessed about Fil. The anger, the bitterness, even the homicidal thoughts. She feared he would shoot up right then and stomp away from the table.


But no, “of course, you felt all that,” Jake assured her. “It’s only natural.” He even took her hand. “You also see the good in her—I can tell—that spark.” And Josie, with different tears flowing, agreed.


Returning home that evening, kissed once and respectfully at the door, Josie was surprised to find Fil waiting up for her. The sight of her sister alone in the living room was usually enough to sicken her with the prospect of helping her into bed, but for once Josie was elated.


“I think I finally found him,” she giggled. “The good one.”


She expected Fil to join in the excitement, but her bright demeanor suddenly turned dour. A crooked hand signaled stop. “I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, sis. Be careful.”


Josie was furious. Who was she to tell her “don’t jump,” a girl who couldn’t even walk? And be careful of what, a saint? “But this is what you’ve always wanted for me, wasn’t it? The man who would love me for what I am, warts and all.”


Fil, eyes narrowing, nodded. “Warts and all, yes. But still…”


“Still what?”


“There is such a thing as being too good,” Filomena observed. “A point where even saints can become Satans.”


Josie squinted at her sister, for a moment barely recognizing her. Enthroned on that wheelchair, imperious under a pyramid of lamplight. “Some Satan,” she inwardly groused. “I’ll show her.”


And she did, starting the very next day when she started following Jake from a distance. Trailing him from the accounting firm where he worked to the soup kitchen he volunteered at most evenings. From the environmental awareness club he chaired once a month to the Bible school classes he taught on weekends. Asking around, she learned a great deal about Jake. How, as an only child, he supported his single indigent mother, and how his religious beliefs forbade him from indulging in vice or, after dates, kissing her more than once at the door.


For they continued to see one another, continued to spend hours at restaurants where Josie talked and talked and he indefatigably listened. He was never late picking her up, though he often arrived early, affording him time in the living room. There, he referred to her parents as Ma’am and Sir and lavished attention on Fil. He seemed fascinated with her disabilities, with her resilience in learning to type with only two functional fingers or to adapt to store-bought clothes. As if stunted limbs and not Josie’s waistline were the real source of the family’s beauty, not power-blue eyes but clubfeet.


“She’s so different,” Jake remarked while escorting her to his second-hand Civic. “And so brave. I really admire her for that.”


Josie smiled, really hating her. Beginning to hate Jake as well, the more she shadowed him. His slim shoulders bent over some half-crazed street person, spooning him broth, or keeping an entire class of ten-year-olds fascinated by the Book of Leviticus. His friends on social media were indeed his friends, and his memes invariably tasteful. No sign of Satan anywhere, but neither of a human being. Reflexively, she started detesting his too-combed hair and untarnished skin. And, despicably, she found herself missing Kyle. And Liam and Wyatt, all those awful, two-faced, self-absorbed bastards, who also happened to be real.


“Well?”


Her sister was again alone in the living room, waiting for her after the date.


“Well, what?”


“What did you discover this week?”


Josie plopped onto the sofa. She was tired of being listened to, unerringly respected, and inspired. “You already know.” She could tell that by the look on Fil’s face, like the Asian statue she remembered seeing once in a travel album, placid and wise. “Nothing.”


“Imagine, then, living with that. Spending your whole life.”


Josie shivered. “He’s not normal, Jake. Not natural.” She was talking to herself now, to the standing lamp and the stairs. “Defective in some way, twisted. It’s like he’s…


The word was impishly supplied. “Deformed.”


She had to break up with him. Josie knew that then and sensed that Jake being Jake wouldn’t protest. He even thanked her for the pleasure of her company, her candor in opening up to him, and the honor of meeting her family. Josie walked away relieved, back to the bank and to the world of gorgeous but mortal men. To Damon, Rocco, and Jett, who wooed and pursued her but only to the point of her living room.


everal months of such rejections were enough to start missing Jake. His graciousness and solicitude, his patience and even his strawberry hair. Without much introspection, Josie knew that she had made a humongous mistake. But how to rectify it? Call him? No, her pride prevented that. Like every one of his posts? That was entirely too dumb. Josie felt paralyzed, for the first time in her life, totally helpless.


That is, until the night she returned early from a date curtailed by another family introduction, dropped off without even the pretense of “I’ll call you.” Exiting the Corvette and shuffling toward the door, she caught sight of the second-hand Civic in the driveway. “Jake!” she cried out, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. “Jake!” And she ran, heels sinking, across the lawn, flying toward the living room lights.


And now, arrayed in white, waiting in the vestibule, Josie thinks of that night and sighs. She adjusts her cap and fluffs up her mums, pretty enough for a catalog. A full-length mirror begs to be admired, but before she can, her mother pokes her sweet permed head inside.


“It’s time,” she chirps.


Entering the chapel, Josie sees him waiting by the altar, black-tied and saintly. Jake sees her as well and smiles, but fleetingly. For just then the organ pipes in. The guests at once rise and titter. All applaud as her father in formal wear proudly strides up the aisle, wheeling the beaming bride.


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