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I slide the door open and am struck by the silence. I'd grown used to the party noise, colliding voices over ongoing music. Edward sits at my table, staring at Sprout, contemplative. I don't think he heard me come outside. It's just him and the night, stars shining above like thoughts in the sky. What is he contemplating? Is it the same thing that has been plaguing him all night?
"Maggie and Pete are gone. Come inside."
"Your Sprout is looking good."
A cluster of closed yellow buds crown Sprout's long neck. "I think he's a daffodil."
"Yep." Edward sways slightly as he gets to his feet. "But he's more than a daffodil. He's a jonquil."
He trails a finger up one of the stalks. The furled buds tremble. "See how the leaves are like little tubes? And multiple flowers on each stalk. Narcissus jonquilla."
"I love when you do that."
"Identify a plant?"
"Say their real names. It's like you can speak another language."
"A habit. I used to repeat them over and over out loud to memorize them. Never stopped doing it, I guess." He follows me inside.
The kitchen counters are covered with dirty dishes, silverware, glasses. I yank open the fridge and am surprised to see a few unopened bottles of wine. "Chablis? Or some of this. Apparently it's orange, and according to Maggie—" I make air quotes "—'on trend' this summer."
"Got any beer left?"
I squat down. There is a six-pack shoved behind a couple of cans of soda. I squint at the box. "Anchor…" Saison? "It must be some of Pete's craft stuff. I don't know how to say it. Say-son? Seh-zon?"
"Let's go with that."
Edward digs the bottle opener out of my second drawer and uncaps two bottles. He starts on his while I finish loading the dishwasher. "I like doing this," I mutter with a shake of my head.
"Maggie wouldn't leave. She was insisting on staying to help. She could barely stand on her feet and yet she wouldn't leave without helping. I had to tell her I like doing it to get her to go home. I told her it gives me a sense of accomplishment, reminds me that the party was a hit."
"I'll drink to that. The party was a hit."
Edward grabs the rest of the beer and I follow him into the living room. We sink into the couch. I tuck my feet up under me, situating my dress over my legs. In my shifting, my knee skims his thigh. I like the way his jeans feel a little rough through the breezy cotton of my dress. I leave my leg there, pressing against him.
He lifts the bottle to his lips and tips his head back, his eyes closing. I drink in the sharp angle of his jaw, the scruff shading his chin, the curve of his neck. I could take my finger and trace his lines. Like art.
With his free hand he touches his collar. I stare, my throat going dry, my lips dry, too. I find myself dampening them with my tongue. Edward finally unbuttons that top button. I sip my beer to equalize my emotions, to refrain from drawing my finger down his throat, over his Adam's apple, to the end of his now open collar.
"Good night?" he asks.
I swallow. The beer is different, crisp and spicy, and I don't know if I like it. "I think so. It was really Maggie's baby, so–"
"Did you have a good night?" His eyes are focused on me. In the lamplight, they appear more hazel than green.
"Yeah, I did. But it's sad, too. Maggie made us call it a Begin Anew party, but she and Pete are the only ones who get to begin anew. For the rest of us, it's like, 'Now carry on without us.'"
He wraps his hand loose around my forearm and lingers there like a ladybug that has come to land and I watch, regretful, as it flies away. "You'll stay in touch."
I could point out that Angela and I said the same thing before college and that I've seen her exactly once since her wedding. "It will be hard and things will change, but I know we'll make the effort to talk and visit each other."
"The inside jokes in her speech flew right over my head, but anyone could see your connection." His words both soothe and sadden me.
"Like sisters," I say. "We're really different. You wouldn't even think we'd be friends, but we do have that, like you said, connection. Somehow, we fit. Like family." I think of my family. "Or maybe not. Maybe that's the thing. We're unlike family."
He knocks back his beer and when he sets it down on the coffee table it makes a hollow clunk. "Like family. Unlike family. You like how I speak a plant language, I like how you argue with yourself."
I give his arm a swat.
"No, really. I'd take a ride through your brain." He weaves his hand through the air like a snake.
"Try living in it."
He pulls another bottle from the box and lifts an eyebrow. I shake my head, my bottle still two-thirds full.
"Do you mind if I…?"
He uncaps the bottle and takes a long pull. I try not to spy on the liquid level through the brown glass, try not to look like I've noticed he downed half the beer in one go.
"I, um, I gave someone your card." I'm nervous telling him this. I don't want him to think I think I'm doing him a favor, don't want to be responsible for raising his hopes if nothing comes of it. "A friend of Maggie's from the girls' preschool. She was really impressed."
Edward seems unfazed. "Thanks." He swipes condensation off the bottle. "I talked to a couple of people who seemed interested. We'll see how interested they are once the wine wears off." He shrugs, like it doesn't matter to him one way or the other.
I touch his knee. "Don't do that."
He tips his head, his eyebrows pulling together. "Do what?"
"Don't – You don't have to pretend with me."
"I'd rather pretend with you, Bella."
Stung, I lean away. He wants to play pretend? When things have finally crept into the realm of 'possible.'
He puts his hand on my leg, fingers sprawling across my knee, the tips pressing like he's trying to keep me in place. "I'm not pretending with you. It's just that I'd rather pretend all the other shit isn't real and that this—" he waves a finger between us "—is as easy as it feels."
His laugh is dry. "But nothing's easy, is it?" With a groan he falls back against the couch and makes a move for the hat he isn't wearing. He runs his hand through his hair instead.
I catch his hand on its way back to his beer and clasp his fingers. "What's the matter, Edward?"
He clutches my fingers back and bends them like he might kiss my knuckles. He looks at our connected hands. "I moved out."
"I thought she already moved out."
"Yeah, but she came back."
I pull my hand from his. "She wants you back?"
"Not me. She wants the house."
"Edward. You have to give me more. You moved out. Where did you go?"
"You live there?"
"There's a kitchen. Not a bed, but room for one. There's a couch."
"You're sleeping in your office?"
Edward drains his beer. "Since Friday." He opens a third. "It's okay. Well, no, it's not. It fucking sucks. But we talked. Or her attorney talked to mine, anyway. She gets the house. I get the business." He chops a hand through the air. "We're even."
At the last wedding Emily and I attended, the best man, a social scientist of some sort, talked about how marriage is synergistic. The union, he said, creates something bigger than the sum of the two people involved. One plus one equals infinity. I wonder if the reverse is true in a divorce, if it's not as simple as dividing the life you've built in half. In Edward's case, with no house and his business on the line, it sure seems like two divided by two might equal something less than one whole.
"Even." Edward shakes his head. "I should've listened to them. Everyone said it. They told me to give it a few years. Live together first, see how it went. But Gianna's parents would've flipped their shit if we'd moved in together. I thought..." He rubs a finger across his eyebrow. "I mean, she's five years older than me and just being with her, she had this way of making me feel, like, if she thought I was good enough, I felt good enough."
I swallow a mouthful of beer, wash down the rising thought. He believed that would be enough of a foundation to build a marriage? I remind myself he was young. I've made my share of regretted decisions.
"And then I wasn't good enough anymore."
"It's hard to admit, you know? Even to myself. But once I admitted it, that we weren't good together anymore, it was like, I couldn't see anything else. When we met with our attorneys, I sat there and looked. I looked for the person I used to love and I couldn't see her. I did love her once, but it's gone." He flicks his hand, like a magician waving a wand. "I can't feel it. Can't see it. We were too different. We wanted different things. That was good at first. Part of the draw. But when you want different things, someone is always going to be unhappy."
"I know what you mean. Not in a marriage, obviously. But I've never been happy."
He shifts, his leg rubbing against mine, and our eyes meet. His look glassy. "Never?"
"Not in a relationship." I think about that, about happiness, what it means. "I've felt happy. I've felt that a lot. But happiness. I don't think I know what that is. I know it's out there. It is." My gaze drifts toward the yard. The window is opaque with the darkness behind it; my own reflection, leaning close to Edward's slumped form, stares back at me. "It is, right?"
After a pause, there's a small quirk at the corner of his lip and that's it, like he's settling with whatever the answer is. Maybe settling with not knowing the answer. That's not good enough for me.
"It better be because I'm going after it. New yard, looking for a new job. A better version of me. That's where happiness is, I think. Not out there, in here." I put my hand on my chest. "Internal. You gotta find it and pull it out. You have to, I don't know, create it."
"Really? I was thinking I sounded naïve."
"Nah. Wise." He clinks the neck of his bottle with mine and finishes it. He opens another. "That's what I like about you. You know stuff. You learn. From life. You teach. You could be a teacher."
I picture Emily. Strong, confident, knowing. Even after everything she's been through. "I'm definitely not a teacher."
"But you could be. A professor. A professor of life."
"The brain you want to take a ride through, right? Like Space Mountain."
He smiles, and it's a little lazy, and so cute the way his eyes crinkle with it. "Exactly. Bella. Bella Mountain." That cracks him up. I drink my beer and watch him laugh. It's silent but shakes through him. A drunk laugh.
I wonder how much he's had to drink. These four beers along with whatever he downed during the party. His eyes aren't focusing. His words had begun to slur more and more during our talk.
"Take charge," he says and closes his eyes. "Taking charge of yourself. Yeah. That's what I'm doing. That's what you're... doing." He lifts his beer to his mouth robotically.
"I think you're passing out."
"Nah." His eyebrows rise like he's trying to open his eyes. He gives up. His bottle tilts in his hand. I take it before he drops it, but it's empty. I tap his shoulder. He doesn't budge, his breaths deep and slow.
"Edward?" I tap him again, shake a little. His eyes open, barely. "I have a spare bedroom. You can take that bed."
"I'm used to the couch." His words come out attached to one another.
"Please," I say. "Take the bed. I'd feel better"
"All right." But it is several minutes before he gets up and follows me into the room.
I pull the blankets back and he gets in, eyelids drooping and closing as his head drops to the pillow.
I watch him, the way his chest rises and falls. I listen to his breathing, look at his parted lips. I remember the feeling of those lips on my skin and touch my head where they touched me. I wonder what they'd feel like against my mouth. I wonder what amount of kissing or type of kiss it takes to get his breath heavy, his legs weak, but his hands and arms strong—grabbing, holding, stroking. What does it take to get him to want and reach for more? What does it take to get him to pull me into him?
I slide into bed next to him but resist putting my head on his chest. His hand lays open beside his face and I rest my hand over it. I wait to see if he grips my fingers, holds me. He doesn't stir. I close my eyes.
Hours later I open my eyes to bleary light, to Edward sitting up with his back to me.
I rise. He doesn't stir. I shouldn't have fallen asleep in here with him.
He turns, his face pale.
"Are you okay? Do you want some water?"
He leans forward and reaches his arm out. He puts his hand on my head and smooths it down my hair to my shoulder. He nods. "Water's good."
I fill two glasses with ice and water. He joins me by the refrigerator.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep," I say, "in bed with you." I remember now, how it had happened, with my hand in his. Were our hands still like that when he awoke? My glass grows cold against my fingers.
"I didn't mean to stay the night here."
I swallow back some water.
"Or get wasted."
"You were..." I don't want to remind him that he was upset.
"My mouth is—Can I borrow some toothpaste?"
I sift through my drawer for an extra toothbrush and we brush our teeth side-by-side in my bathroom. I'm weird and tense. I try not to stand too close to him and avoid eye contact through the mirror. I wait until he rinses and leaves the room before I spit.
I find him soaking some of the serving dishes in the sink. "The food is glued to these," he says.
"Do you want coffee? Or I have eggs." I'm offering him breakfast.
"I'll help." He starts the eggs while I make a pot of coffee. Neither of us are coming up with anything to say. Maybe the coffee will help.
It doesn't. We eat in the same stilted speak we awoke to. He says it looks windy outside. I agree. I say I hope it lasts through the afternoon. He agrees. I really should have slept in my own bed.
When we have another load of dishes going, to the muffled sound of water spraying, I blurt out what I think is causing our awkwardness, our distance from each other.
"Nothing happened. Last night. Between us." I swallow the only explanation I have for why he awoke next to me. I wanted to know what it felt like to lie down beside you. I slide onto the closest stool, the one he sat on during breakfast. We had breakfast together. We spent the night together. I feel like I'm sitting on broken glass.
"I know." He says something else under his breath, too soft for me to hear.
"Have you ever–" I touch my lips. Don't ask.
His blink is like a flinch. His eyes are bloodshot; they look sore. "Gotten so drunk I slept with someone and didn't remember it?"
On the other side of the counter, he puts his hands at the edge and leans toward me. He studies me. "Have you?"
Like it's a challenge, I stand up. "No."
"That's good." He rubs his hand back and forth against the stubble on his jaw. "For you. A guy who's too drunk to remember is probably too drunk to, uh, make it worth your while."
My cheeks burn. "But I wouldn't remember."
"And it'd be pointless if you didn't remember. Like it didn't even happen."
"Did it happen? To you?"
He pushes away from the counter and folds his arms across his chest. "There was this girl. We had a class together our first year. I only drank so much because she made me nervous."
"You? Nervous with a girl?"
"It was different than high school. In high school girls were..."
"Easy for you?"
"Not all of them." His gaze is piercing. Another challenge? This time I step forward and mirror his stance, arms across my chest.
"You." He says it without a pause, as if he knew the question was coming. Like he wanted it to come.
I release my arms and look down at the counter. Not just my cheeks, but my whole body grows hot. I start counting my heartbeats but can't keep up. When I look up I see that he hasn't looked away. He could melt me with that gaze. I know what it's saying, what he's saying, though he hasn't spoken another word. His whole demeanor is like a confession. He's no longer talking about back then. He's talking about now. Right this second.
He moves around the counter, nothing between us anymore but space, air. He touches my wrist. I watch him watch his hand as he caresses up my arm to my shoulder, traces my neck. I take in a breath. Fingertips landing, but barely touching my jaw, he lifts my face, his gaze on my lips now. Is he about to...
It isn't until his eyes finally meet mine that he leans in, tilts his head, and I know.
He brushes my lips with his. The world pauses and I understand how a person can take up another's whole being with a simple touch of mouths. My lips part. When he pulls back, no matter how slow the action, it feels abrupt, sharp. He rests his forehead against mine. "I'm sorry, Bella." All whisper. "Sorry, sorry, sorry."
He lifts his head and I look up at him, my hand flat against his chest, his heart pounding underneath. I hadn't known I'd put my hand there. My voice is as hushed as his was. "Are you? Sorry?"
A nod from him and I close my eyes as I feel them tearing up.
He touches my face. "I went out of my mind fighting this last night. I can't fight it anymore."
I want to tell him it's okay, but I'm not sure it is. Yesterday's conversation with Emily invades my mind, all the things I said could go wrong if Edward and I don't pace ourselves just right. And who knows what is right at a time like this?
I let myself open my eyes, though I know the tears still linger. "I wish I didn't like you so much."
He turns his head, and I wait for him to turn back to me. "Come here." He folds one arm around me, and then the other, over my shoulders, trapping me in. I reach around his back. I grab his shirt. "This is okay," he says.
I lift to my toes, lift my lips to his. And we kiss. Maybe we shouldn't, I don't know. But I need it. I can't help myself. I hear his deep inhale, feel his lips harder against mine, his tongue against mine. He can't help it either. My stomach flies into my chest, my breathing as heavy as my legs. I could sink to the floor with him.
His hands pull at me like he's not thinking about it. He's just doing it, bringing me in closer against his heated body, arching me backward, aligning his pelvis with mine. He craves what I crave. More.
So this is what it's like.
"Bella..." It's weak, his words giving way to more kisses. But he says it again. "Bella," and it's stronger this time and he straightens us up. "Should we...?"
"I don't—" I break from his embrace, let myself fall out of this fog of Edward I'd been wrapped up in, try to control my breathing "—I don't know. You're just divorced. It's not even final yet, and we're... us... are you sure?" Say you're sure.
"Sure?" He shoves his hands into his back pockets, blows out a breath, glances at the ceiling. "Who can be sure?"
I clasp my pendant. "I think it's possible, it happens. And that's why, because you don't see that right now—"
"Are you sure?"
My shoulders tense, my jaw, too. Yes. No. I'm both sure and unsure in the span of one second. I look into his eyes and they stare back strong, but there's an unmistakable constriction in his brow that isn't usually there. It resembles fear. I hold my breath. I shake my head. "Sometimes it feels right, but..." I shake my head again. To be completely sure, one must be assured by the other. "Maybe you—we—need to take some time. To think."
"What does that mean, take time? How long?"
A day? A week? A month? I don't have these answers. "Maybe that will become clear." I take a step toward him. "When we're apart for a while."
"Apart." He scrubs his forehead.
As he repeats the word, I note the irony in its spelling. A part of me. Apart.
"What about last night? About taking charge?"
"To do that, Edward, we have to know what we want."
I see a subtle flinch in him I can't decode. Then he seems to find resolve. His whole face hardens to match his brow before he eases back into his gentle, natural expression, though there's not even a hint of a smile.
He slides his hands over my shoulders, down my arms, to my wrists. I think he might kiss me again. My chin lifts toward him all on its own.
"I should. I should go." He takes my fingers and squeezes them before he turns.
I follow him to the door with nothing to say to keep him here. We can't be apart and together at the same time. He takes my key from the console table because he knows my door by now. He lets himself out easily, leaving my key in the knob.
After the door is shut behind him, I turn and lean against it. "Edward," I say, as if it isn't too late to bring him back.