(FR will, from time to time, feature fiction and poetic work. Here’s your first dose, courtesy of Tyler, a short story.)
We would lie there in the guestroom, Will and I, wearing nothing but shadows, and marvel at how far we’d come since first we met. His arm would circle my waist, fingers playing at my hip, my hair unsheathed across his chest. There was music, most times, some hasty mixture of ballads offered by a computer long since dimmed by sleep, and the walls were still dark then, the queen bed still in place beside the door. His voice was loud by nature, but in those spare moments it was rare that it rose above a murmur, except to laugh. I loved his laugh, his smile. He had the worst habit of biting his lip, but his mouth was truly beautiful. He spoke in quick, unspooling sentences when excited; he kissed me as if I might be lost to him at any moment, and sometimes I could feel him smile even as our lips met. I can still say with absolute certainty that I’ve never felt more attractive to a man. Every part of my body was a discovery to him, even after he’d made their acquaintance. I suppose he would have tired of me, given the chance, and drifted into the same comfortable appreciation that even the best of loves eventually find. I’ll never know.
He still crossed my mind now and then for a time, though the memory’s potency slowly dulled. I would hear some loud proclamation from a passing, caffeinated undergraduate, and look twice. My favorite coffee spot on campus was no longer mine alone, and, after a time, I moved my business to the student center’s busy cafe. After social occasions, nights out on South Grand where I worried my child’s welfare, gulping bourbon, he would find me in the cigarette scent that lingered on my coats, my hats. Stephen found it annoying (as did everyone, until the passage of the smoking ban), but I considered my dirty clothes a fleeting dose of visceral memory, and would inhale their second-hand aroma before dropping them into the washer. Greeting a new class as their quiet T.A., I would scan the room for his face, an absurd neurosis. I never went to Coffee Cartel again; it was there that I’d left him for the final time, after so many prior attempts to end it had failed. He’d thinned so much as I’d begun my protracted retreat, and his face as I turned away that last time was a kind of horror. But the separation finally took, I adjusted my life according to emotional necessity, and after time felt his presence less and less, save for nights, late, when he would get drunk and send me an overwrought e-mail, or I’d hear or see something whose association I couldn’t control.
Owen, meantime, came along not long after Will was gone, enough months that there was no risk of paternal confusion, and tidy rooms for visiting guests were no longer an option. I was easing into the early stages of my doctoral thesis, and Stephen was building a new portfolio while also assisting with an installation in Soulard. I had not planned on a pregnancy–despite the prior, endless insistence of Stephen and his family–but I took to my husband with a feral passion after the affair, and biology trumped best wishes. I no longer cared enough to delay, anyway, and acceded to my growing body, a woman accepting motherhood’s hurdling eventuality. I was to have a son. Owen David, my stunning co-creation. When he was born, it was as if nothing unusual had happened at all; my marriage once again upon firm ground, my baby boy growing, my career moving forward, all those pre-pregnancy fears countered, those worries that one would not allow the facilitation of another. In a blink, five years had passed, my son an astonishing presence for three of them, my mind forever a seesaw between the draining processes of crafting a dissertation and building a man.
It was a rare instance, then, on a Thursday in March, the air much warmer than the norm, that I found myself in Will’s old neighborhood. I drove past the house where I’d met his roommates, where in the stairwell we’d kissed like teenagers, my spine pressed against the wall, and parked my car on DeMun as I had all that time before. It didn’t faze me, though, those reminders of him; I was to spend the afternoon working, and my babysitter lived on the northern counterpart to the street that had been his. She was to watch Owen, and I would be just around the corner at Kaldi’s, drinking coffee (Americano, to be exact), tidying pages for the week to come. Cassie, our sitter, was a former student of mine, and she even refused payment, bless her heart, all too aware of a professional student’s meager wages. Thus, I was to pick up a drink to bring her while she busied my boy, knowing from old off-campus sessions that she adored the shop’s low-fat mocha.
Hence my presence there that day, when I emerged from the shop, paper cup in each hand, Owen toddling at my side, handbag falling to the ground. Owen wandered off a few feet as I dropped into an awkward crouch, balancing Cassie’s mocha and my own decaf tea, attempting in vain to loop my purse over my shoulder. Succeeding, finally, I rose, turned, and before I knew I was speaking I was speaking because there at a patio table making a goofy face at my giggling son was Will.
“Oh my God,” I said, “…hi.”
His face turned up and our eyes met for the first time since then and the initial difference I noticed was his hair. When I knew him it was untamed and tangled, but now it lay trim, a kind of stylish, atop his head. He’d gained a bit of weight, too, though this was a blessing, given the circumstances of our last encounter. His eyes remained the same, a proverbial “bedroom” quality intact, and they were fixed on me now with as wide and shocked a gaze as ever could I remember him offering. At first it seemed he would not be able to speak–though his lips were parted as if he might, in an astounded manner that spoke volumes enough. I thought I caught him smiling for a half-second, but then he lowered his face to Owen and spoke in playful tones to my son.
“Is this your mom?”
Owen’s head dipped–I was certain that he was grinning, at least–and he turned and wobbled back over to me, wrapping his arms around my left calf. He hit me with energy and my knee buckled. I stumbled forward, just catching my balance. Will leapt from his seat and propped his hands on my shoulders. I noticed this after I steadied my stance and he noticed me noticing and quickly pulled them back; a kind of charge went through my body and I felt faint. He still had not offered a word to me, and we gazed at each other for some time. I cursed myself, my sloppy appearance, my matronly concessions of vanity. He ran a hand through the curls abutting his left temple and bit his lower lip. The tangible familiarity I felt regarding even his tics was astonishing. After what felt like ages, he found his voice and spoke to me.
One word, but, hey, a start. “Hey back,” I said, and immediately felt like an ass.
“He’s, uh…he’s beautiful.”
I found myself bashful, deferring responsibility for some reason, seized with prompt self-loathing as I said “Yeah…well, thanks, I mean, hey, he’s only half-mine.”
The reference disgusted me; harkening even obliquely to my husband, I felt a filthy kind of guilt. Will did not appear to notice. “He looks like you,” he said, “he has your eyes.”
I chuckled for some reason. “That’s what–everybody tells me that. I can’t see it.”
“That’s because they’re your eyes.”
“Everybody says that, too.”
Jesus, I thought, you ass. He’s complimenting your child. I tried to soldier forward but everything kept coming out sideways. “What are you–God, I can’t believe it’s you! You’re here!”
He still seemed clueless, unable to say much of anything. I couldn’t blame him. Part of me wished he wouldn’t try and wished he would instead just look at me. God, could the boy ever look at me. I wanted to study that look, commit it to memory, rescreen all the details I had lost. Instead, he tried to play down my idiotic babbling. “I am here,” he said.
“God, I’m–I’m really sorry, I just–God, wow.”
“There’s–” He chuckled a little. “Dude, really, no need for apologies. I’m kind of on a wire here myself too, you’re fine.”
He masked his vulnerability, as always he had, with this nervous laugh that rang now in my head like a long-forgotten favorite song. It was really him. I fell into a similar halting chuckle. “I–yeah, wow.”
He looked at me for another moment before asking, “What’s his name?” and I realized that I’d forgotten about Owen for possibly the first time since pregnancy. I found myself smiling and turned to the boy who still clung to my leg.
“Honey? Owen? This is Will, this is an old friend of Mommy’s. You wanna say hi?”
Owen looked at Will, his pinched face curling into a smile before, once again it was buried into my leg. “He’s shy,” I explained, and almost apologized yet another time before catching myself.
“I can see that.” He was looking now at Owen, and then he was looking at me. “Well, Jesus. I, uh…do you wanna…I was just about to get a refill, I…”
“No, yeah, totally, I–God, wow! I actually–I’m about to drop him off around the corner.”
“But yeah, I was gonna do some work here–my sitter, she lives, she lives around the corner, on North Rosebury, hence, the, uh–” I lifted the cup carrier. A voice in my head told me to fling the thing into the street and embrace my onetime fake boyfriend. The voice, I ignored.
“Oh, well, yeah, I just figured one of them was, like, milk.”
“Ha!” My laugh was genuine, and atrociously loud. Will stage-blinked his eyes, amused; some leather-skinned man looked up from his own table. “Jesus, sorry, ” I said, to Will, not the old man.
“No, okay, great, do you, uh–should I just wait here, or…”
Half a decade had passed and still the unspoken suggestion that he walk me ’round the corner, along with the attendant possibility of being seen in tandem, doused me in fear. I had to remind myself of the date and time. “No, no, just, uh, here, walk with me.”
“Okay. I’m just gonna…go get that refill.” He reached back and picked up his cup from his table.
“Oh, yeah, go, go.” He walked past me, taking care to avoid so much as a brush of my shoulder, and stepped into the shop. I could have gasped. Owen tugged at my hand. “Mommy, let’s go,” he said, drawing out his words with a nascent wistfulness.
“Just a minute, honey, okay? Mommy’s friend is gonna walk with Mommy.” Jesus, what was with the “Mommy”s? “We’re gonna go to Cassie’s in just a second, okay? Just another second, baby.”
“Oh-kay,” he said, shifting his weight from foot to tiny foot. I found myself breathing aloud, as if I were fending off panic or had barely avoided an accident. I was seized with an urge to run, to sweep Owen up in my arms, race to my car, leave the scene, go home, cry, hyperventilate, freak out, anything, something. I felt wrong even seeing Owen around him, guilty as hell, poisoning my husband’s son with his wife’s secret past, not to mention my inward marveling at the spectacle. I felt I could vomit. I was pretty sure I didn’t want hot tea anymore.
Will must have felt something similar, for he emerged from the shop empty-handed. “Changed my mind,” he said.
“Oh. You sure?” I asked. Ludicrous.
He gave me a look, wry, face turning. “Yeah, I’m sure. I think they’d make me pay for another one now, anyway. And I really probably don’t need any more caffeine.”
His vernacular was as ridiculous as ever. Enormous words leavened by a kind of modern facetiousness and this profane self-awareness that, I noticed, he was restricting in front of my child. That, or he’d reformed his manner of speech, which seemed unlikely. When I knew him, he spoke like a tenured professor on a bender. “Good call,” I said, sounding like a beer commercial.
“Kinda could go for a drink. Like, a massive drink.”
I found myself nodding. “Yeah, yeah.”
Another loaded pause. “Well–”
“Yeah, oh. Yeah.” I turned to Owen. “You ready, buddy?”
He looked again at Will, turned away and said “Yeeaaaah.”
Thank God. Briefly calmed, I blurted with enthusiasm excessive for even the most ebullient mothers, “Okay! Let’s go!”
We walked the three-quarter block to Cassie’s in silence. It was just as well–my mind hurtling in dizzy circles, questions careening around the inside of my skull. Why was he here? What were the odds? Was he waiting for me? Of course he wasn’t waiting for me. Christ, could I hold it together? I damn near passed Cassie’s walk-up. “Mommy!” Owen cried.
“Oh,” I said, giggling, backtracking a pair of steps. “This is us. I’m just gonna pop upstairs…?”
“Oh, yeah, I’ll just wait here,” he said, “look around the old neighborhood. Possibly have a mild heart attack.”
His nervousness, his awareness of it, was, as always had it been, disarming. A broad smile crossed my face as I said “Okay. Please don’t have a heart attack.”
He turned away, though nonetheless I could see his hand as it raised to his face. I walked Owen up the housepath and into the stone facade of Cassie’s building. Her apartment was on the second floor, and we climbed the stairs two steps at a time. The door opened before we reached it. “Hey!”
“Hey! Come on, Owen.” He had trouble with top stairs at times, and always resisted the handover. I boosted him up the final step and he grabbed my fingers, clenching them tight.
“I don’t wanna go!”
Cassie beamed–the non-parent’s amusement with an adorable child’s every action, no matter the inconvenience. “C’mon, fella, I’m not gonna bite!”
“Nnnngg…no!” He squeezed my hand and peered in reverse down the stairs. “Aw,” Cassie added, unhelpfully.
“Owen, you just said you wanted to come over here! Come on.” Against my better judgement I picked him up and offered Cassie an eyebrow shrug of apology. “One of those days,” I said.
“I can tell,” she said. “Who’s the guy?”
My stomach heaved. “Huh?”
“The guy downstairs. I saw him walk up with you!”
Jesus, was she waiting at the window? “Oh, Will! Haha.” Why the nervousness? “He was a student of mine, years ago. He was down at Kaldi’s, he’s in town for some reason.”
“Ah.” This seemed to satisfy her. Why wouldn’t it? “He’s cute.”
“Oh yeah. I mean, as far as I can tell. How long ago did you teach him?”
“Oh, man, I dunno, what, five, six years ago?” Six. The affair came later. “I think he was satisfying a requirement or something. We used to talk baseball. He’s like a music guy.”
“…what?” I could not not be more flustered.
“Guys dig girls who like sports. He probably had a crush on you!”
“Ha, yeah, right.” Please shut up, Cassie. “So I’ll pick him up around four?”
“Sure. Lemme know if you need any extra time. Find out if your boy Baseball Boy is single.”
A tremor of jealousy creased my brain. Absurd. Insane. “I’ll do that.” Then, nodding the focus back to Owen, desperation: “He’s pretty energetic today, so be careful. And no Dora.” I was sick of fucking Dora. “He’s been watching nothing but Dora all week.”
“Do-ra!” Owen cooed in my ear.
“Yes, I know, baby, but Cassie doesn’t have Dora at her house, okay? Maybe you guys can play a game.”
“Yeah, Owen, d’you wanna play a game? I’ve got Chutes ‘n Ladders, have you ever played that?”
Owen looked to Cassie, and back to me. “Dohhhh-raaaaaa!”
“Al-right.” With a sigh I handed him over. He took to her arms without complaint. She really was terrific with him, and I felt mildly bitchy. “I’ll be back in a little while, okay, buddy?”
“Okay. I love you, Owen.” I kissed him on the forehead.
Cassie about melted. I ignored her, rustling my son’s straw hair, passing to her the coffee carrier. “Here, I don’t want mine. It’s decaf green, if you get extra thirsty.” I turned to the stairs.
“Thanks. See you in a few hours. Wave bye-bye, Owen!”
I turned back to her, obligatory wave in the air. “Thanks again, Cass, I really do appreciate it. Sorry, I’m a loser today.”
“Stop! Go do work. Catch up with your cutesy-pie friend down there.”
“I’m gonna do work. Bye, Cass.”
“See you later!”
“Do-ra!” I heard Owen cry as the door closed. I descended the stairs and stopped on the mid-floor landing. I stretched my arms, my palms, exhaled. A slender break in the building’s ornamental glass allowed me a private look at him; he was pacing, sort of, and despite the time that had passed I still knew him, could tell that his mind was swimming. The entirety of my body ached.
When I pushed through the front door he greeted me with a smile both expectant and apologetic.
“Look, I don’t–if you were gonna get work done or something, I can–I mean…”
I cocked my head and did my best to look at him as if I thought him crazy. “Okay,” he said, “just checking. I–”
“Here, let’s…let’s walk.” I started down the sidewalk back towards the coffeeshop. My voice was flat. Alien. “Cassie is…snoopish.”
“She asks a lot of questions. She already saw you and asked who you were.”
“Jesus. What did you tell her?”
“I told her you were a friend-slash-former-student I ran into at Kaldi’s.”
“Well, shit. How could you do that? You told her the truth?”
“Don’t do that.”
He grinned, a bit smug for my taste. “I–”
“Look, can we just walk, okay? Let’s walk.”
“Okay.” His voice was calm, defensive smugness fading. “Let’s walk.”
He matched stride beside me and we walked again in silence, his hands jammed into jean pockets. My handbag swung at my side. He spoke and I cut him off. “Can I say at least that it’s–”
“Look, should we do this? Maybe we shouldn’t do this. Maybe this is a fucking terrible idea, it’s–”
He stopped in his tracks and grabbed my arm. “Okay, look, I–” My reaction to his touch was an electric spasm; I looked at his hand and he pulled it right back, making a point of it, holding up both hands as if in surrender. “I am no more…prepared for this than you are,” he said. (Christ, his words!) “Here, get it outta the way: I’m here for a wedding. I always come back here ’cause I used to live here. Of course. And I like it. I’m meeting friends later, but they’re working right now, and I was killing time at Kaldi’s. I like their coffee. Or, y’know, just coffee. I was gonna, y’know, read the RFT or some shit.” (There was the profanity I remembered.) “You’re here because you wanna do work and your babysitter lives around the corner. We’re both here at the same time. Can we just stop for a second, okay? I’m not gonna freak out, you’re not gonna freak out.”
The words were a kind of condescending, but I knew the place from where they came and that place was okay. He’d run out of ramble and we stood there gawking at each other until he extended his hand and, dry as dust, said “I’m Will.”
He was hiding his grin, but damn, was it still irresistible. I took his hand and we shook, a kind of mechanically. “Noelle.”
“Well, Noelle, nice to meet you. Y’know, I was just about to head around the corner to Sasha’s and drink a bottle or six of brown liquor. Would you be at all interested in joining me?”
“It’s like twelve-thirty,” I said.
“Not too early to drink?”
“Jesus, God, no.”
“Okay. Sasha’s. You enjoy your ‘brown liquor.’ I’ll have a glass of wine.”
We resumed our stroll.
“Not a bourbon girl anymore?” he said, glee a touch too present in his tenor.
“Bourbon gets me into trouble lately. And it’s twelve-thirty!”
“It’s kind of supposed to get you in trouble, I think. And what is it people say? ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere?’ That’s not true at all. Anyway. Bourbon.”
“Well, it’s all yours. Don’t get any ideas.” Too much. Christ.
“Pssh. You flatter yourself. I’m spoken for.” Well-parried. Sort of.
“Yeah, for, like, four years now.”
“Oh. I thought you broke up.”
He hesitated. “…we did, for about a month, maybe a little more. How did you know that?”
“You sent me an e-mail. At some ungodly hour.”
Another hesitation. “…ah. Ah, man. I kinda always hoped you hadn’t read that.”
“For loads of reasons. I…yeah, whatever.”
“Fair enough. Well, I read it and it didn’t kill me. It wasn’t embarrassing or anything.”
“Ha! Says you.”
“I’m serious! I wouldn’t even have known you were drunk if you hadn’t mentioned it three times.”
“Whatever. Those e-mails aren’t my proudest moments.”
“It really didn’t bother me.”
“I’m not worried about that.”
“Well? Okay, here, you go get shitfaced and send me a late-night e-mail telling me how persistent my memory sure is. Then, okay, I will tell you that shit is not embarrassing.”
The cheeky fuck. He held the door and I led the way into Sasha’s. It was a casual place, slow during the day, and we took a pair of seats at a bend in the bar. “Whatcha gonna get?” I asked him.
“Same as ever.”
“Are you testing me now?”
“Hey, alright! I think I’m just gonna have a beer, though.”
“Oh? What happened to your ‘bottle of brown liquor?'”
“Well, I’m not gonna sit here and get soused while you sip apple-screwtop wine or whatever the fuck.” His verbal barbs were sharp, but not quite caustic.
“Y’know, I think I missed your attitude more than anything.”
“Seriously, what are you gonna get? White Zin?”
“Ah!” I play-shuddered. “How dare you!, young man.”
He laughed. “Nice.”
The bartender arrived and we ordered–me, a glass of Pinot Noir, him, a Schlafly Pale Ale. He shrugged off his jacket, a light brown thing, and draped it backwards over the back of his chair. “You like Schlafly?” I asked.
“I do. I don’t get back here that often, so I gotta get it while I can.”
“Oh yeah! So, who’s getting married?”
“My friend Kate.”
“…don’t think I know her.”
“You don’t. Well. You don’t know most of my friends.” Good point.
“I know a couple! I knew your roommates, and Tim, and…who was the one guy who I didn’t meet but who didn’t like me?”
“Yeah, Pete. Thanks, here.” I handed the bartender a twenty.
“Stop. You’re visiting, you’re a guest.”
“Yeah, but!” Not your best, Will. “Plus, don’t you have, like, a slave wage? And that child we just dropped off, does he not require shelter, and sustenance?”
“Just, allow me, okay?”
Reluctant, he acquiesced. “Okay.”
“Don’t be too grateful. I wasn’t gonna pay for any bottles.”
“I would hope not.” Damn him and his wit. That grin. “Thank you nonetheless.”
We sipped our drinks. Mine was soft, solid. A decent choice. He followed his sip with a satisfied exhalation, and glanced at my glass. “How is it?”
“It’s good! I like Pinot, it’s good in spring. It’s light.”
“We’re not at spring yet.”
“No, not yet, but it feels like it today.”
“It does, doesn’t it. I’m kinda surprised they don’t have the front open.” (Sasha’s had bay doors that opened onto a patio during the summer and nice weather.)
“Yeah. Still March, I guess.”
We sat in silence, having literally just talked about the weather. He took his slugs with eyes dead ahead, tipping the bottle damn near upside down. “So.”
“I…” He paused, reconsidered, and stormed ahead anyway. “This is way fucked up, isn’t it.”
I had to laugh. “Yes. Yes. It is incredibly fucked up. It’s weird. I did not expect to see you when I got up today.”
He laughed, too. “Yeah, no, I did not expect this shit, either. It is pretty weird.” He was understating for effect. The queen.
“Hm?” I swallowed another sip.
“The situation, I mean. It’s weird. If I’m being honest, I don’t particularly personally feel weird, me. I’m all over the place, but not necessarily…weird. You?”
“…no. Not personally.” I was surprised, not at my response, but at its honesty.
“It’s just…unexpected? That’s obvious. But yeah.”
“I’m not doubting you!”
We returned to our drinks. I took a long pull of mine and let the wine sit on my tongue before almost spitting. “So who are you now? What do you do? I don’t even know where you’re living.”
“Still New York.”
“Ah! You finally got there. What part?”
“Queens. Astoria. Everybody lives in Queens now. Soon we’ll all be moving to the Bronx.”
“Yikes. Weren’t you in Chicago for a while?”
“What part there?”
“Lakeview, near Wrigleyville.”
He laughed, for real. “Oh yeah. Living in Wrigleyville gave me a kind of respect for you fucking Cards fans.”
I kept laughing. This was a big deal! “Y’know, if I had to run out right now, I think running into you would be totally worth it just to have heard you say that.”
“Yeah, yeah, mea culpa, rub it in. Yeah. Keep it coming.”
“Oh, God, yeah, I think I will.”
“Enjoy your bullshit World Series win.”
“What was it, what, eighty-two wins? Eighty-three?”
“Something like that. Plus, what, y’know, eleven?.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He drank. “Y’know, I almost wrote you when that happened.”
“Yeah? Why didn’t you?”
He looked at me as if I’d sung him the question, in Mandarin. “I’m gonna be nice and just go with ‘the obvious reasons.'”
”The obvious reasons?” Oh, God. “Yeah, okay, that was a…pretty fucking stupid question. Sorry.”
He drank some more. “Don’t worry about it.”
He meant it, but I still felt stupid, as I found his demeanor elusive and coy, which didn’t bother me specifically, but which did make him seem a kind of mean, which I didn’t much like. During our “time” together, we’d never had a fight–what was there to fight about?–so I’d never really seen him be a jerk. I studied his face, a touch wider than it had been, brushed with stubble where he used to shave daily. He wore a hooded zip-up that looked comfortable; for some reason I wondered if it would fit me. “You look really good,” I told him, and I meant it.
He smiled, reluctant. He’d always responded to compliments with this stuttering awkwardness, even as he wasn’t speaking. This quality, of course, only made me want to compliment him more. Cassie was right–he looked cute. I thought to tell him so, but I thought again. “Owen–‘Owen,’ is it?– is beautiful,” he said.
“You said that,” I reminded him. Playfully. I hope.
“I know, but he is. You’re a mom.”
“Yeah, kind of very. But I dunno. I always thought you’d be an awesome mom.”
I could feel heat in my cheeks. Damn. “Well, I guess we’re on our way to finding out.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.”
I thought then of asking about his girlfriend, but the freakish jealousy that had poked me outside Cassie’s now roared at the idea, a phenomenon I could really not believe. I left the subject alone. We started to speak at the same time, and we stopped, and he smiled. “What?” I asked.
“No, you,” he deferred.
“No, go, it was stupid.”
“I was going to mention your hair.”
He laughed, a single, deep, loud guffaw. “Yeah, ha, I mean, I had to grow up sometime. I looked ridiculous.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Y’know, you’re not the only one, which I will never understand. I like it better this way.”
“No, I think I do, too. It just threw me. That, and, y’know, fucking seeing you.”
I was already regaining his habit of cursing to no end. He smiled again but did not laugh, casting a glance down at the bar. It occurred to me that he was withholding a sea of things to say, and it looked as if the dam might very soon be breaking. He was hesitating; his eyes kept staring at things, the bar, the wall, the windows–anything around but me. I wanted to preempt him, to soothe him, but I didn’t know anything to say that wasn’t really just awful. I felt a bizarre closeness to him, all this time passed, and that closeness bewildered me, made me feel odd. I thought of holding him–him holding me–and I liked it. I didn’t like that I liked it. “So is it weird being back?” I asked, hoping to stem both our off-track trains of thought.
“Eh, I’ve been back a few times, this isn’t the first time. This is kinda the one neighborhood where it isn’t weird, really. Everything else is fucking different. Streetside is like, what, a Noodles And Company?”
“Ha! Yeah. It’s not great.”
“64/40 is like this massive canyon? The fucking Hi-Pointe is gone?”
“Oh, yeah! I thought about you when I heard about that. That was your place.”
“Oh yeah. I still, like, when I get back into town, instinctively think, ‘Oh, let’s–oh. Oh yeah. Never mind. I guess we’ll go to South Grand.’ And, y’know–” His hesitation here was bewitching. “–I dunno, I’m not gonna lie, that’s largely a ‘you’ kind of neighborhood for me. It’s always fucking weird being down, like, at the Jade Room or something.”
I cranked my mouth to one side. “The Jade Room’s not The Jade Room anymore.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s got some silly new name that I can never remember. It’s basically the same damn place.”
“I haven’t been there in awhile. We don’t go out that much, for obvious reasons. When we do it’s usually CBGBs or Mangia.”
“I mean, CBs is my kind of place, but Mangia is pretty, I dunno, ‘I have a sitter on the clock and my mortgage is giving me a migraine.’”
“Ah! It’s not that bad!”
He knew he was full of it. “No, no, it’s not. I’ve been drunk at Mangia a few times. I think one of my friends blew a dude in the alley behind it or something.”
“See? You make it sound like, I don’t know, T.G.I. Friday’s or something awful.”
“What, you guys don’t do family nights out there?”
“God, no. We’re Applebee’s people. You can totally blow a guy in the alley behind there.”
He laughed, loud, very hard. I was a bit stunned by my own coarseness, and yet thrilled.
“Well, duh, who isn’t?” He paused for a moment and continued. Something about my crack, or, rather, the preceding sentiment, reached him. “Hey, look, I don’t wanna–I’m just busting your chops, I really am happy for you.”
“Yes! What, I’m not–I’m not gonna wish, like, pain and misery on you and your adorable moppet child. Jeez.”
“I know. I just figure it’s a little…weird, for you.”
“It is weird for me. But I’m used to weird. This whole thing–” He swung his hands between us, his grip finding, as ever, his beer. “–was pretty much based in ‘weird,’ so it’s not like I’m not used to it regarding you.”
I couldn’t help myself. “That’s a…weirdly good way of putting it.”
“You got it.” He took a long pull of his pint, draining it, and held it out for the bartender.
I pushed forward. “So c’mon, what about you, what’re you doing?”
“I, uh–yeah, another one, thanks–I dunno, I’ve done a whole bunch of shit. I fancy myself a kind of jack of all trades that’re never gonna get me anywhere. I’m a personal assistant right now; before that, I was waiting tables; in between, I’ve done temp work, I’ve, fuckin’, worked at a dog shelter–”
“That sounds awesome!”
“No, trust me. At least not this dog shelter. I mean, the dogs were great, I’ll give it that.”
“Do you still have–what, it was a your cat, right??”
“I do indeed. He’s where about half my money goes.”
“Awwww. You and your kitty.”
“Eugh, that sounds terrible.”
“Yeah, I’m still just a big ol’ softie! Under all this cynical nonsense.”
“So you’re a cynic now?”
He laughed, lifting a fresh beer from the coaster. “Uh, I mean, what’s that they say about cynics? They’re all failed romantics or optimists or Democrats or something?”
“Yeah, I don’t think you’re old enough yet to write off ‘youth.'”
“Yeah, no. Let’s talk in a decade, maybe.”
“Ha, okay. So when I’m, what, your age?”
“Oh! Okay, sure, yes, when you’re an old withered maid, sure. Run wild with your cynicism, by all means..”
He chuckled, soft. “Oh, stop. I’m just playing. You look–” He looked me over for a good long second. “–you look lovely.”
I let it sink in, because it did feel nice. “Thank you. I’m–you don’t look bad, either. I really am still getting used to the hair.”
He paused, smiled. I sensed his hesitation, carried on.
“You got friends getting married yet?”
“Well, I’m here for one…yeah, ugh, Jesus, it’s bizarre. I mean, I’m happy, I’ve been with Jules for, what, four years now? Almost? Y’know, when I was younger, I’m sure I would’ve thought, ‘Fuck, Older William, get to it,’ but you actually get to this point and you’re like…okay, this is great, but I think I’ll ride it out for a little while. I’m still, I dunno, a colossal meandering jackass who drinks on weeknights and smokes pot.”
“You can’t do that when you’re married?”
“Well, I mean, you can.”
“What? I remember a few drunk-’n-high phone calls on the sly. Lemme rephrase. I guess…I dunno, my now-brother-in-law promised, like, his dying grandmother, or something equally ridiculous, that he wouldn’t get married until he was thirty.” (I could see his buzz sinking into place. Had he been drinking before?) “And he, like, chased tail all around my sister until he was about twenty…-eight? And then they got serious, and now they’re married with a kid. Happily. And, y’know, I’m not interested in that shit, I already had my wild days, so to speak, but…I don’t know, the ‘wait until thirty’ idea doesn’t seem…I dunno, unreasonable? It’s totally unique to my freak-show generation, but hey, it’s still…I dunno. I’m rambling.”
He was. It was adorable. “You guys are getting books written about you now.”
“God, yeah, I know. I’m a ‘millennial.’ Shoot me in the face.”
“Hey, I’m a ‘Gen-Xer.'”
“Nah, fuck that. You’re me.”
Silence followed. I couldn’t think. He broke, and spoke.
“You gonna get another glass?”
I looked at my glass and it was empty. “No, I think I’m good. I gotta pick up the kid later! Two glasses is pushing it.”
“Damn, you’re a lightweight now. Does that come with age?”
“I don’t know. Does bitchiness?” I’m still proud of that one.
He grinned. “Touche.” He took another sip. “Well, here, I’ll finish this guy and…do you have time? I don’t want to keep you.”
“No, I’ve got ’til four. It’s only–” I looked around the bar for a clock and found one. “Oh, wow, it’s only one-fifteen. Yeah, we’re totally fine.”
“Sweet! Here, lemme settle up. We can go for a walk or something.”
“Okay, I’m actually gonna hit the bathroom.”
“Cool.” He motioned to the bartender and I rose from my stool.
In the bathroom, I stared into the mirror. I shook my head; I cloaked my face with my hands. I felt lovely. I felt like I should run away.
He’d already paid for and finished his beer by the time I returned. “Shall we?”
“Sure.” I picked up my bag from my chair and followed him out onto the sidewalk.
We stood opposite each other, uncertain. He did some things with his hands, clapped them together, put them behind his head; I jutted my chin and nodded. “So…”
It was inevitable. “Well, I guess…it’s nice?. Fuck it. Picnic table?”
I rolled my eyes a little. It wasn’t like I had any better ideas. Without saying anything, he led the way, and we walked across DeMun to the rolling hill that constituted the neighborhood park. Sasha’s was new for us; this was not.
As we crossed over the grass, he stated the obvious. “This is weird.”
“I mean…yeah. It’s…is it weirder that we can acknowledge the weirdness? Or does that make it less weird.”
“I don’t know. Stop saying ‘weird.’”
“Yeah. Okay. I’m gonna sit down.”
“Okay. Don’t let me stop you.”
He hopped himself up onto the picnic table, halfway up the hill. I sat on the attached bench. We were quiet for a time. Pleasantly so.
“We’re moving,” I told him.
“Oh yeah? Not enough room for the kid?”
“…basically. Our, uh, ha, ‘our’ room is now Owen’s bedroom.”
“Oh wow.” He thought for a moment. “How symbolic.”
I didn’t blame him, but I couldn’t do it anymore. “Stop.”
“You know. You’re either…I don’t know, you’re fishing for reassurance, you’re guilt-tripping me. Maybe both. It’s beneath you.”
“It’s beneath me?”
I sensed I’d crossed a line, and backpedaled. “Yeah. You’re better than that.” Eugh. Lousy recovery.
“What do you–” I saw something building, something unpleasant. “I’d wager you don’t really know what I’m ‘better than’ or ‘beneath’ or whatever.”
Fuck. “I didn’t mean–”
“No, I know, you didn’t. But I’m…a little bewildered. Forgive me if I ‘fish for reassurance’ or ‘guilt-trip’ you. I’d figure a little…I dunno, residual bitterness isn’t completely…I dunno. Whatever.”
“You’re bitter?” I thought, but I knew I’d already gone too far. For so long I’d assumed that he bore me no ill will, that my waning pleasant memories of him were something our “bond” preserved on both sides. I didn’t feel guilty, but I understood why he might want me to. “Will, I’m sorry,” I said.
He didn’t respond, staring as he did down the hill across the street toward Sasha’s, toward something. He pushed himself forward from the tabletop and sat down beside me on the bench. He leaned forward and spoke, at some length.
“One of my friends–one of the guys I moved in with after college–we had…we fuckin’ fought last year. That shit’s pretty new to me, I’m not one to hold grudges.” He didn’t notice the irony, and continued. “It runs in my family.” Oh, no. I knew about his family. “I’m very aware of it. But we stopped talking because…he’d developed all these bad behaviors, bad habits. These sort of…condescending extensions of things that had previously been quirks, y’know, like, mild annoyances. The kind of shit we all have and all our friends have. Nobody fits anyone perfectly. But it got to be too much for whatever reason, and I said something, this blunt thing. He’d said something or another and I got really pissed off–and we had this…’sever,’ I guess you could call it. And, like, it didn’t really faze me, beyond the standard shock of it, and I wondered why that was.”
There was a sadness to him now, this melancholy, all too natural. It broke my heart a little. He continued. “And I looked back and I realized that…in my perception, he’d become this person that…I dunno, I didn’t like very much. I’d been taking shots at him forever, offhand bullshit, I was making it clear he was getting on my fucking nerves. But…–it’s fucked up–I felt better, having it out with him. It’s, like…I realized…what I’d been doing over time was far shittier, really, and like kinda cowardly. Instead of sitting him down and saying whatever was on my mind, I just let it pop out in these fits and spurts. Which, like, made it all the easier for both of us to cut the other loose, I’d laid all this groundwork, not intentionally, but… maybe, I dunno, knowingly? If that makes any sense. And–I really am getting to a point here–I realized that, as I’ve gotten older, y’know, I’d rather be the guy to lay it out. Completely. And cut my losses.” And here he looked right at me for the first time since he began the speech–“I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s beneath me.”
I wasn’t sure if he would go on. When I decided he wouldn’t, and started to say something, so did he, and we talked over each other and deferred to each other like a pair of buffoons. “I–” and “But–” and “oh, no, what?” and “no, you” and all that, until he insisted that I go first.
“Okay. I was just gonna say, y’know, it’s fine. I’m not–this is…it’s fucked up. I’m not on top of my game right now, either.”
He nodded, but did not take the lead. I asked him. “What were you going to say?”
He kind of smiled, a grimace, scrunching up the side of his face nearest me. “I–” He hesitated, and then he looked right at me once more, and the grimace made sense. “I was really…angry with you, Noelle.” He turned his focus back to the street.
He paused for a long time. I waited.
“…I mean, I’m just pissed at you, because I’m kind of fucked in a way.”
He stopped again, and started again. I felt slightly ill.
“You know, people–my closest friends, the ones who know me the absolute best–people don’t get it. And, yeah, I do feel a little used, in retrospect, but it’s not like I didn’t ‘use’ you for whatever damn reason, and I still don’t think either of us knew it anyway. But now you’ve got a life, and a kid, an awesome one, and you’re not haunted by me, because it’s obvious you made…”
He paused, scuffed his sneaker at the worn grass between the table, and continued. “–the right call.”
He paused again, this time for a long while. Despite his words, which landed, rusted razors in my gut, he spoke in an unemotional, analytical tone–as if he’d been thinking all of this for so long that he no longer had the requisite rage, and was now resigned to emotions he’d compartmentalized, out of necessity. Just like me.
“…I’m not the kind of person who wishes something hadn’t happened. I think it’s stupid, because, y’know, no matter how fucking awful something is that happens to us, it still defines who we are. And, like I said, I’m not anti-me in most ways, I’m pretty happy with myself and I guess the person I’m becoming. I feel stronger about myself, less codependent, all that crap people told me would come towards the end of my twenties. It’s kind of nice, actually. But…God…I really, really sometimes wish I’d never…fucking…met you. You fucking broke me.”
Somehow, I knew that he was finished, and couldn’t think of a Goddamn thing to say. I was tempted by an urge to tell him I had been mistaken, that he was a momentary lapse in marital judgement, and that–while I never regretted him because he helped lead in his own strange, crucial way to my child–that I certainly now held our “relationship” (God, whatever could we call it??) in the proper perspective now that time had passed. I thought of telling him that, and doing it coldly, so that he could really hate me, not just love/hate me, and he could rage against my memory for however long it took to move on from me, however many years late. He was still so fucking young. And it would make him feel a fool, too, as he’d just made me feel a cruel bitch, and we would stand on a level even playing field of misery.
But I couldn’t do it to him. So I was selfish in a different way, and I told him the truth.
“Stephen and I redid the guestroom when I was pregnant with Owen. I guess I was about…four months along? He would pull the furniture out and I would tape the walls, and then we painted everything in light blues, and these soft yellows. It’s actually a really cool look.” No response. Keep going, Noelle. “Lots of sponging and streaking on purpose and stuff, we didn’t want your typical lame kid’s room for our kid. Stephen did a kind of mural on one side, I did a sort of sunshine thing…it turned out really nice. We hadn’t bought any of the furniture yet–we wouldn’t have enough room until the paint dried, anyway–so when we were done it was this…strange little pastel box of cuteness. Of light. It felt like this time machine–” I meant every word. “–into the future, when he would be here. It was really–I started to think of him as him, and not just…we didn’t know his name yet, but he was Owen, already. And for the first time, when we finished those walls, it felt like I knew him a little bit. This overwhelming feeling. Y’know, we hadn’t planned on him, but you had left, and I had this void, and we just–well, he just happened, and–” Sorry, Will… “–we were having a lot of sex. More than we’d had in a really long time; I mean, you remember! I’m sure you remember that. And, y’know, hey, conception! Life-changing event! Holy shit! What was weird, though, was…I mean, I hadn’t thought I’d be ready for a while. We’d been holding off, in theory. You know. But…so…he was a surprise, but…well, I mean, thank God, it turned out I was ready, and, I…”
He had not moved. He was listening. I kept on. I had to.
“…I guess you sort of prepared me for that a little.”
He remained a statue. I hesitated. I feared for his pain. I spoke, spoke words, whatever filled my mouth.
“Will, I mean, exhausting doesn’t even begin to describe it. Shit, you’re too tired to think about how your life’s changed, and I don’t…I wouldn’t really much want to.”
Suddenly, now, he was watching me, a passive non-smile on his face. I went on.
“So, anyway, we’d painted his room. I remember this so clearly. It was over a weekend, we finished up on this Sunday afternoon, Stephen went out to the grocery to get some things for dinner–he was really, just, like, wonderful all throughout, he was the guy I’d fallen for all over again. I didn’t even think of you much at all. I was …surprisingly okay.” I paused. I breathed. “Until that Sunday. It was late in the afternoon, February, March, and it was sunny through the window, and the paint smelled good and it looked good, and I felt good. I sat down on the floor and looked around, my hands…I couldn’t keep them off my belly, and I felt like this…ideal mom and wife. And then this song came on. We had my laptop in the center of the room, we had a drop-cloth over it, for music, and I’d just sort of left it going after we finished up and got cleaned up…I think I’d forgotten I was even listening to anything at all. And then whatever was on ended, and–God, I remember this so fucking clearly–this tremolo guitar starts up, and it’s a Natalie Merchant song.”
My eyes were welling now. Brimming, salted.
I looked at him. He nodded his head just a hair. Just enough.
“…it started with a kind of hitch in my throat. Y’know that catch? Not like, not even when you’re trying not to cry, just, like, all of a sudden it’s coming and there’s your warning, and get ready? And then I was sobbing.”
We sat, silent. I had to finish.
“The song actually ended, something else came on, but I kind of reached over across the floor and started it again and hit repeat, so I could listen to it over and over, and just cry, because I missed you, so much, for really the first time since I ended us.”
Now, I could see him. His fist was at his mouth; he was staring at the ground.
“I lay there for however long it was. My hands were to my chest. You were washing all over me. I could see you. You were right there, in our room. I wanted it back.” This was where my throat turned, strained. “I wanted to pull all the paint off the walls and put back the bed and the desk and the lamp and shut out the sun and my life and my brain and my heart and my stomach and just be lying there with you holding me, ’cause that would be the only thing that would make me not sad.”
I could see now that his eyes were clenched. His cheeks mapped with routes, tears. I wanted to wipe them away. I would not allow myself. I went on.
“But…that was impossible. You were gone. I let you go.”
His head turned, but not to me. Some feet away, a ruddy squirrel clambered up a tree. I went on.
“Stephen…Steve came back and he found me there. I heard him come in downstairs and I stopped the song, but I couldn’t stop crying, because…I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to be alone…I wanted…to mourn you. I guess I never really had. I kept…I kept seeing you smile at me, that fucking awesome smile. But…Stephen, I guess he heard me, he came rushing up the stairs, into the room, y’know, ‘What’s wrong, what’s wrong, are you okay, what’s the matter?’ I just told him I was having a sad moment, a happy-sad moment, and I needed to shower, okay, I’ll be fine, I just need to shower. And–he was wonderful, he stood me up and held me for a little bit. And then I went to the shower and he made dinner, and I cried a little more, and then I sat down in the kitchen and put you out of my mind. I had to.”
Will’s head was down, his hand on the back of his neck. His eyes were wide open, still staring. God knows at what. I waited to go on, as I wasn’t sure where I was going on to. For the first time since I’d seen him at that table, talking to Owen, I wanted to reach over and hold his hand. I didn’t.
“So then there was Owen. Old life over, hey there, new everything! I’m a mom. My boy is beautiful; my boy is healthy, thank God. I’d kind of worried, y’know, I was only…well, they’ll do anything to make you think ‘autism’ anymore. But he was just fine. I can’t describe to you, Will, how it feels–I know that’s lame, believe me, I heard it plenty myself–except…”
And suddenly I was angry, and the words snapped out. “Well, here you go, Will: I love my son, unconditionally. As soon as I met him. A lot of women can’t handle that. But I never had a problem. So thanks–you pretty much prepared me for that, too.”
We sat in silence, then, again, for a long while. After a minute, or fifty, he rose to his feet, walked up the hill a bit, and then stopped, waiting for me to leave, perhaps, or to follow. Like I had a choice. I rose to my feet, too, and we walked without words to the walls of the seminary, a secret from the street.
When he kissed me I was stunned, my head an explosion. “Stop him,” I thought, of course, but that didn’t take, and then the inexplicable consideration of whether I’d gone so long between kisses with anyone before. I noticed that he didn’t taste like smoke anymore, but that he still tasted familiar, like a dish not served since childhood. I thought it akin to our first kiss, too, the boldness of him, and I wondered whether anyone could see us from the seminary. I hoped my breath was okay, not reeking of coffee or, Lord, something worse, and, finally, I was seized by the very clear incendiary thought that I was kissing William and I pushed my hands into the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt and brought my hips against his and sunk my tongue into his mouth. I thought of Owen, and then I thought of nothing, save the boy whose hands were on my hips. It was warm for March, a slight breeze came through, and I was very, very happy.
It came to me then, out of air or firing synapses, what I’d said to him after that first bold move of his, when I was seated and he was standing in that room that no longer existed. He’d quizzed me, so I thought it fair to test him when I pulled my lips from his and exclaimed, feigning surprise, “You kissed me!”
It was only a moment, but I knew that he knew, he couldn’t be stumped, the shit. A corner of his mouth came up, that fucking mouth, bashful, radiant, and he ran his hand up my back and into my long hair. “You said that already.”
I shook my head and could not stop smiling. “Fuck,” I said, “fuck you.” And his lips were on mine again, and he was joking between kisses that it wasn’t a good idea, so near a house of God and all, and when he’d finished his lame punchline, his hands slid back down my back to my ass and I felt a pure animal passion and wanted him there, now.
“You be careful,” I warned, ever the careful one.
“Don’t worry,” he said, in seriousness, not jest. We came together once more and he left his hands in place, and they and we went no further. We kissed. It was greater than I could have imagined. I’d never tell him. But I’d imagined. I’d imagined often.
After, we lay on the grass, his back against the grey stone, my body reclined into his, and we spoke the way that lovers do and take for granted, bantering as if some fog had lifted and we were the pair that both of us had felt like we were born to be, once upon a time.
“You’re old now, huh?”
“Hey!” I thrust my elbow into his ribs.
“Ow, Jesus, easy!”
“Terrible. I’d ask you how old I actually am but I’m sure you know. Possibly to the hour.”
“Not quite. You are thirty…five. Thirty-six in June!”
“Oh, you,” I said, in a British accent, for no discernible reason. I allowed my fingers to play with his. He called me out.
“We’re British now?”
I grinned and intertwined our hands. “You’re not so young yourself anymore, huh? Twenty-seven?”
“Look at you! Yes. Twenty-seven.”
“Creeping, creeping, creeping towards the big three-oh. Feel old yet?”
“I most certainly do, but not because I’m pushing thirty. Thirty doesn’t bother me.”
“That’s good! It didn’t bother me.”
“As I recall. Doesn’t faze me at all. Just like it didn’t faze you.”
I pushed up and looked back at him. “Jesus, how do you do that, Wills? You’re like a me encyclopedia.”
“That’s awful.” I fell back into his arms. I pushed up once more, spun my body, and sat opposite him, cross-legged. I leaned forward, kissed him, and spoke.
“I’m not going to apologize for not ‘picking’ you, Will. I can’t, because I’m not sorry and I won’t lie to you. I’m sorry that I hurt you. I’m sorry that things weren’t different. I get it.”
“I can tell,” he said, but in a good way. He fixed his eyes on mine. I could tell what he wanted to say. To his credit, he held himself back. He leaned into me, kissed me. I can still feel his hands gripping my shoulder blades. My chest fluttered; my body pulsed. I had forgotten, after all this time, that I loved him for reasons, for his mind and his humor, an untamable energy, this passion, intensity. He was older now, yes, harder around the edges where once he’d been rough, but, still, he possessed a dynamism, teenage. It was what got him into trouble, would get him into trouble for the duration of his life, but it was what I treasured most in him. He was strong enough to make it an asset. And then I remembered that he would need that strength, sooner rather than later, and I wanted to fall into him right there and bawl. Instead, I turned my head sidelong and asked him, “Do you think there’s somewhere, some weird dimension where we grow old together?”
He looked at me, a soft look, heavy with pause. He asked me, “How much time we got?”
I untilted my head, fished my phone from my bag, and checked. I could’ve used Cassie’s offered extra time, but what would be the point? Pushing it had never worked for us anyway. “It’s three-thirty. Half an hour.”
Nothing was said. He stared at me, my face, my forehead, and then the ground. I twisted myself so that my back met his chest. I tried to sear his face into my memory. I picked up again his hands and brought his arms around my waist, easing into him, hoping he would smell and kiss my hair. He did. He slipped his hands around the lapels of my jacket, under my sweater, my undershirt, chaste, and rested his palms on my midriff. I closed my eyes, content, and only as his hands, curious, expanded across my stomach did I remember its current state, its unusual curvature. We lay together, silent, and then the baby kicked.
OhmyGodfuck, I thought, the final word the only one that stuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Like an idiot, I hoped at first he hadn’t noticed, but his hands had already left my skin, hovering above me as if uncertain where next they should go. I grabbed them, gripping tight, a kind of instinct, I guess, my mind a skipping record still, fuck fuck fuck. He didn’t talk for what seemed years.
I worried he was mad, or hurt, or sad, ready to cry, or scream, or run. I wasn’t ready to lose him yet, not now. I’d granted no indication that this day would change anything, and I don’t think he thought it would, but this was terrible, just awful, the worst way to shatter our shared illusion. I wouldn’t have wanted his girlfriend walking up, seeing us. I wouldn’t have wanted Stephen to witness. No matter. My child-to-be, blind and concealed, took the last look.
“That…” he finally began, “It’s harder than I would have imagined. Firmer, I mean.”
I laughed, just for a second, relieved at his humor, and then sat up, faced him. “I’m sorry, God, Will, I didn’t want to say anything, it wasn’t–” and then the recurring thought was all I had. “Fuck.”
He shook his head, sad, resigned. “No’, it’s okay, look, I know, okay, I get it. I mean, it’s fine?”
My lips fell open, but there was nothing to say. “Do you know?” he asked me.
I did. I nodded. “A girl.”
He brushed my hair behind my ear, his gesture of choice, and let his palm linger on my cheek. I’d forgotten how sad his eyes could be, always his most betraying feature. He smiled as best he could and said “Congratulations.”
I felt my eyes moistening and looked away, an almost violent twist of the neck. I would not cry, I would not allow myself to weep. Not here, not now, not with him. He placed his hands on my shoulders and swept them down my arms, brushing my side, my stomach, my growing womb. He left them there, leaned forward over my belly, and, to my surprise, began to speak.
“Hey!” he began, his voice an unfamiliar blend, tender and soft. “Hey. Hey, I–man, Jesus, you’re really tiny right now, huh? I–” He steeled himself and continued. “I’m a friend of your mom’s. You don’t know what a friend is. You don’t know what a mom is. Okay. Fuck, sorry, this is new for me. I–you’re not gonna meet me, probably ever, so I…I’m just gonna say ‘hi.’ Your mom…she’s really cool, she’s very…important to me, and…hey, maybe she’ll tell you about me, one day. Maybe when she’s all grey and, like, sipping bourbon again–remember, bourbon–” I laughed, I couldn’t help it. “–and you’re devastated by some silly loser boy like me…maybe she’ll remind you that it happens to everyone. And it’ll be okay. Never underestimate your mom, lady. You couldn’t have picked a better place, okay? So I’m gonna shut up, and you go back sleep, and you grow, and one day soon you’re gonna make her really really happy…fuck, fuck. Okay, I gotta go now, so…” He kissed her. “Bye. See you around sometime?”
His face rose and it was red, streaked, wet, and he would not look at me. He turned, threw his knees beneath him, stood, and I rose with him, my hands grasping his, and I would not let him go. “Look at me, Will–look at me, look at me.”
He was against the wall and he was crying and he looked at me and he looked away. I spoke anyway. “Listen, forget me, okay, you have to–look at me–” I turned his face, forcibly, my hands on his cheeks, to see mine–“just forget me, fuck me, okay, I am not worth it. I’m not worth this, okay?”
He was shaking his head, now, no. “Yes,” I told him.
“No,” he said, aloud.
“No, no. I can’t. I–”
“You have to, okay, you have to because you have to, I can’t, I don’t want you to, okay, do you want to hear that? Are you gonna make me say it? Well, fine, I’ll say it, so hear it, okay, I’m selfish and I want you to stay and I don’t want you to go because I love you, okay, I always have, I always will, I never lied to you and I can’t lie now, and you have to forget me, not just for you but me, because I hate me right now and you love me–” (“Yup,” he mouthed. His hands held the sides of my head.) “–and I love you and it doesn’t make sense, okay? So listen to me, believe me when I tell you, okay–” I draped my hand across his mouth, “–forget me, please. I’m not worth it, okay?”
And I kissed him for the last time, pulling his body into mine, and he kissed me back. From my toes to my hair I felt electric, a circuit, my body alight, all molecules unstable. One of his hands threaded my hair and as his long fingers entangled it I thought I might fall, and I knew if I did he would hold me upright, as long as I needed, forever. We kissed and we kissed and I adored him, required him, with every fiber, all of my body and whatever else, whatever he loved about me that I loathed now, loathed for breaking his heart all over again. I kissed him and it was salty, his mouth, and then I pulled back from him and I told him I was sorry once more and I left him standing there alone, crying, again, again, always again, in my mind forever, fading, forever present, never gone.
I composed myself during the walk, but then saw my son and once more lost control, wielding to Cassie that convenient excuse, hormones, partum exhaustion, and, though I’ve always figured she suspected something, she’s never asked nor said a single word. I carried Owen to the car, buckled him into his seat, sat behind the wheel and cried all the way, past Will’s old brownstone, through that canyon interstate, along his old route to my house, up Kingshighway, past the park, all the way home, Owen wondering all the while, Mommy, why, why are you sad, Mommy?, me explaining that I was just so happy and so anxious for his sister to meet him, and vice versa, and that I just could not wait and it just got to me sometimes, I was so excited. I parked the car upon the street and lifted him from the backseat, carrying him through the yard, past our realtor’s incongruous sign, up the stoop stairs and into the house, where Stephen greeted me with immediate concern, ignorant sympathy, and took our son from my arms, telling him Owen, Owen, c’mon, let’s watch Dora, Mommy’s gonna take a nap, okay? Okay. Mommy’s okay. Mommy’s happy, Owen said, Mommy’s happy, and I climbed the stairs to his bedroom, lay on the floor and cried and cried. They left the house after a time, the door slam carrying through the vents, and I howled then, bawling, clamping my eyes shut to the pastels and the mural and the stuffed animals, my knees to my body, the music everywhere, only in my head. Still crying later, I heard them return, arms full of groceries, even Owen with a light plastic bag, carrying bread, and Stephen made dinner while I sat in the tub of the shower and wept my last. By the time the food was ready, my face was dry, the whites of my eyes again clean, and I sat at our small kitchen table in a set of my favorite cotton pajamas. He’d made a salad, Stephen, and some light fish, no butter, countering the lactose intolerance I’d passed on to our boy. We passed around the salad bowl, heaping large green portions with our plastic tongs, and Stephen helped Owen serve the entree with a spatula. The late sun broke in through our back window, casting long shadows, threatening spring, and we ate our meal together in a strange twilight, three waiting on our fourth, a family.