Chapter 26: The improved you (part 1) The remainder of the car ride passed in silence, and by the time Severin let them into his house, he was indeed more than ready to talk. In particular Miles's last comment had struck home: whatever he had thought he could offer Mandy, he would never be enough. She deserved a confident, healthy partner who could accompany her to the sauna and the pool, and a father to her children who was fit enough to challenge said children to a race. It was time they both faced the music. Severin had barely taken five steps into the main area before he turned around to the anxious-looking woman behind him. "You're right, my and Miles’s reunion was not a happy one, but it was eye-opening!" He paused. "Mandy, what are you doing with me? Why would you want to... settle for me?" Mandy's eyebrows contracted, and a frown took possession of her face. "What do you mean by 'settling'? Severin, you're exactly who I want." "But how could you possibly? Nobody in their right mind would pick me!" Mandy's frown deepened. "I knew that Miles was a worthless bastard the instant I met him.” She balled her hands into fists, staring past Severin's shoulders. Then her eyes refocused on his. "Severin, please try to forget whatever he said. His opinion does not count, only what you and I are feeling." "Well, I'm feeling that you are getting the shitty part of the deal here. I get this smart, funny, talented and beautiful woman--" "Stop it!" Mandy interrupted his heated tirade. "Don't you dare continue! Imagine you were reading your absolute favorite book and I'd come in, take it away from you and say, 'You can't possibly like this book, let alone call it your favorite. Nobody else likes it so it's got to be crap.'” "It's not the same." "On the contrary! And it is not just the you-can't-know-what-is-good-for-you issue but also the fact that I'd would be insulting your book. That hurts! Severin, you are hurting yourself and you are hurting me by pulling away or by talking about yourself that way. You keep so much anger bottled up inside you—" "Damn right I do!" he interrupted Mandy at the top of his voice, and she closed her lips abruptly. Said lips were then assailed by Mandy's teeth as she watched him pace the carpet. "Damn right I'm angry! I'm angry at myself, angry at my parents, and angry at Nicole! Goddammit, what was she thinking, racing her car like that, putting us both at risk?! Some days I just hate her!" His shoulders sagged and his head bowed in defeat as he slumped down on the couch. "Back then I thought I loved her, but the more I look back on our relationship, the less I believe it. I guess I've never loved anybody." Severin was walking the fine line between rightful self-reflection and unhealthy self-pity, Mandy realized, feeling something in her chest contract. She knew she had to tread carefully or Severin would push her away further than their relationship might be able to bear. Quietly she closed the distance between them and took a seat beside him on the couch, careful not to make physical contact. "I have no way of knowing if you loved Nicole or not, or any of your other girlfriends," she began gently, "but what I do know is that you've never loved yourself. You're the person you have to love before all others, which is easier said than done. Trust me, I know how hard that is.” His head came up. "How would you know?" "How would a gangly, on-the-shelf weirdo know? Really, Severin?" Mandy retorted and felt herself transported back to their second argument at the Chinese restaurant. He hung his head at that. "Sorry. Sometimes I get so caught up in myself..." "Sometimes?" Mandy teased him in an attempt at humor. However, this usually so reliable tactic proved to be premature, as Severin erupted with a vengeance that made her flinch. "You have no idea what it's like not to recognize yourself! It was like I was watching from the sidelines, unable to stop what I was becoming, and then one day I wake up in this body that doesn't feel like mine! On good days I can be sort of proud my achievements and even tolerate what I've become. But on most days I can't face myself in the mirror." His heated tirade ended with his head bowed in defeat, but Mandy knew better than to reach out and pull him close. He would only have interpreted the gesture as pity and pushed her away. She forced herself to sit there with a bleeding heart, watching him with burning eyes and wishing he would give a signal that she was permitted to touch him. "Severin?" she asked softly when he did not look up at her for what felt like more than a minute. "May I say something or would you rather be alone right now?" "No, go ahead," she heard him mumble, but he did not raise his head. Feeling her intestines twist tighter, she willed herself to wait until he did raise his head, and it required all of her willpower not to touch the broken man in front of her. His face was a distorted mask of self-loathing and despair, yet no face was dearer to her than his. "I meant what I said: I prefer the new you." "But how can you possibly?" "I just do. I told you I was attracted to who you could be and now… you are," she finished softly. "Are you telling me that you're attracted to fat men?" As Mandy looked into Severin's face contorted with self-loathing, she knew they had reached a turning point. With one single word she had the power to either restore his confidence in himself or risk he would push her away forever. It was a no-brainer. Again, honesty had never let her down, and she had to trust that now would be no different. Willing her breathing and face to remain calm, she fixed her eyes on Severin's. “Yes.” It seemed to take Severin's features the duration of a seven-course meal to ease out of their grimace. Mandy hardly dared to breathe and eventually felt her eyes water, discovering she hadn't even let herself blink under his protracted stare. "You can't be serious." Severin's tone was as devoid of color as his face. Finally Mandy treated herself to a much-needed breath and blink. "Given my late start in the romance department it took me some time to find out but… I am serious. First and foremost I'm attracted to the thoughtful, hard-working, funny man you've become, but it wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you I'm totally into your body, too.” "Are you a fetishist then? Have all your partners been fat?" he challenged her, his voice rising. "I told you that I've never had a real partner! But all except one of them have been overweight, yes," she added softly. “And no, this isn't a fetish, just a preference.” "I still can't believe I'm hearing this." "And I'm sorry I didn't tell you before but you know I'm not lying to you." "I know you're not. That doesn't mean I believe it.” Mandy shrugged. "Each person has their own type. Why would it be so hard to believe?" "Because it doesn't make any sense! No one in their right mind is into fat, especially someone so skinny and beautiful—" "Stop saying that, I'm not!" "Yes, you are!" "No, I'm not!" Mandy shouted back, covering her face in her hands. "Please, please stop saying that. I have made a few changes and I feel OK about myself now but I will never be beautiful!" "Why should I believe you find me attractive if you can't do the same?" Slowly, Mandy lowered her hands, and her gaze. He had her there. "You may not be model material," Severin continued in a loud but much calmer voice, "but you're still gorgeous. Tons of guys think that but you just don't see them!" "Because there are no tons of guys!" Mandy squeezed her eyes shut at the familiar words. It was as if Dominic and Severin had been comparing notes. Suddenly she felt her face heat up with anger. When had she become the object of this discussion? She opened her eyes again. "Please, can't you just let this go?" "No because you won't either!" Mandy shot to her feet. "Oh yes, I will, because I don't want to have this conversation!" For a few seconds they stood there, glaring at one another, both breathing heavily. It was Severin who managed to comment on their impasse first. He looked much more composed than Mandy felt and his voice had returned to his normal level: "I can tell you're about to storm out on me, but earlier in the car you asked me not to shut you out. Now I'm asking the same. Go for a walk, take all the time you need but please don't run out. Neither of us wants to talk but we both know we have to." Severin’s calm, almost pleading expression allowed Mandy's ire to ebb, and she felt her heart rate gradually decelerate. "All right," she nodded at last. “I'll be back in an hour at the latest." "No." Severin’s gentle voice accompanied an equally gentle head shake. "Take as much time as you need, OK? I only ask that you come back tonight." "I will," Mandy croaked, suddenly affected beyond the bearable by the look in his beautiful eyes, and bolted from the room. *** A little over an hour later she let herself back inside Severin’s house. As much as she had wished to run home and hide in her bed, all the more urgently did she need to speak to Severin now. Her head was pounding with every thought she had turned over and over like laundry in a washing machine, and she was bursting with the need to hang them all up on a line for him to see. No more hiding, no more secrets. "Hey." Severin halted mid-step, and turned to greet her with visible relief. Mandy had no idea people actually paced in real life, but based on the pattern on the carpet, he must have been doing that for all the time that she had been gone. Both of them slowly approached each other. Mandy was the first to break the silence: "We've got to so much to say to one another, may I suggest an agenda?" "By all means."