I smile and nod at the man in front of me, but I have no idea what he's saying. In fact, I have no idea who he is. He introduced himself and I've been having a conversation with him for at least five minutes, but not a word of it has stuck.
I get the vague impression that he's interested in courting my mother, and an even vaguer impression that he's looking for my approval.
If that's the case, I'll have to pay attention the next time he talks to me. Of course, I doubt I actually have a say in anything my mother does or who does it with.
Nor do I want those sorts of details.
I shiver a little and look over the man's shoulder, my eyes immediately finding my wife.
A smile spreads over my face. It's been almost three months and I still can't get used to it.
I'm actually married to Monica.
It makes me so much happier than I ever imagined I could be.
Coming home was a big adjustment; so much had changed. I know I shouldn't be surprised by that, but my mind could only picture Monica as I knew her—young, innocent, beautiful, naïve but somehow worldly. In most ways, she's still all of those, but she also grew up.
She looks different now; not old or bad, but more defined, the soft edges of her teenage years sharpening into the delicate angles of an adult.
She's still beautiful. She's more beautiful by the day.
And she's mine forever.
I blink a couple of times, looking at the man blathering in front of me. Is he actually talking about the weather? Is he so eager for conversation with me that he's actually willing to discuss the wind chill?
He must really be interested in my mother.
Not that it's up to me, but I don't know if I'd want someone this old-fashioned chasing after my mother. We're a bit more of the modern sort of family, and Nora Bing is nothing if not forward-thinking. Who else would arrange for her son and his girlfriend to be alone in her own house on Christmas night?
That was four years ago I realize suddenly. Four years ago that Monica and I spent our first night together and four years ago that I truly learned what heaven was.
I knew I loved her; I'd known that for some time, but it may have been the first time I realized just how much I love her, how important she is to me and how no one else in this world would ever do.
My mother must have known all that already, though. As forward-thinking as she is, I don't think encouraging her son to spend the night with his young girlfriend is something she would have done if she hadn't seen that it was a forever sort of love.
Of course, the biggest adjustment to coming home has been discovering that I have a daughter.
She's perfect, and the world's most adorable child, but it was still nothing I was at all prepared for. I like to think that I rose to the challenge admirably, and as far as Abby is concerned, I can do no wrong.
At least for now, but I'll take it where I can get it.
But still…it's all turned out to be a bigger adjustment that I realized at first, at least in unexpected ways. I fell in love with Abby in an instant—Monica introduced us and that was all it took. I was a goner. And I think I was in a lot more shock the first few weeks I was home than I realized. All of a sudden I was constantly around this tiny little girl who reminds me so much of Monica, and somehow just a little of me, and all of my energy was focused on getting to know her. I wanted to make up for lost time. Then we were planning our wedding and getting married—all of this within the space of three weeks. I don't regret it; not for an instant. But parts of me were still confused and hurt by Monica's actions. I didn't want to be, but I couldn't help it. The more I got to know our daughter, the more it hurt to think about never knowing about her. It's led to more than the occasional "heated" discussion about it, and unfortunately, an actual shouting match or two. We've managed to keep it away from Abby—neither of us ever want her to feel as if it's her fault.
What I have to accept is that, at the time, Monica was really still just a kid herself. I saw her as a woman—there's no doubt about that—but she was very young, and very ill-equipped to handle a lot of what we went through, together and separately. She spent a lot of years essentially being despised for her very existence, and I don't think losing her parents and having her grandmother treat her the way she did at all prepared her to be an adult. In so many ways, she grew up way too fast, but at the cost of her own childhood. She handled the situation in the only way she was able to at the time, and whether or not it was the best way to deal with it, it can't be changed now.
It's been tough at times, though, for all of us. We've all spent years with our own schedules and routines, and now everything's different. Ultimately, it's a good different, but it's still nothing like any of us were used to. Sleeping next to Monica is still a novel experience, and I am beyond thrilled that she's my wife and we're in this together, but the reality of our lives keeps settling in, and it keeps hitting me that I almost died without knowing about our child and…it hurts. There's a part of me that can understand why she did it, but other parts of me still hurt and get angry. But we can only have the same conversation so many times—we've gone in circles so often that I've gotten dizzy. She apologizes, I accept, then I ask her again why she did it, and it starts all over. It's a vicious cycle.
My mother of all people has been the voice of reason throughout all this, though. She manages to take both sides and neither side at the same time. She reminds Monica that I'm allowed to be upset over all of it and that my life has been anything but happy for the last few years, and then she reminds me that Monica was scared and alone and young, and even though she made some questionable choices, she loves our daughter and has never harmed her, and then she tells both of us to let it go because we all know from firsthand experience how short life can be, and would we rather spend our time together being angry about the past, or would we rather just be happy that we're finally—finally —together the way we always wanted to be.
When it comes down to it, we're happy. It may be taking a while for us to adjust to our new life, but Monica's my wife and I love her so much that it hurts. The thought of life without her makes me physically ill, and I'd much rather work through all of this together than consider any other alternative.
Marriage is a big change, though, as we're both finding. Before I got shipped off, our time together was often limited, and it wasn't unusual for us to spend more hours apart than we ever actually did together in any given week. Even though she spends time at work every day, we're still together much more now than we ever were before, and now we're actually living together. We both have a lot of habits and personality quirks that take getting used to; we often have simple misunderstandings because we're so used to doing things our own way that learning how to do it together is taking a lot of patience on both ends. Even something as simple as sleeping next to each other has been interesting. Before I left, we only had one or two occasions where we actually just slept next to each other—the rest of the time was spent making love or at least fooling around an awful lot. The first week I was home, Abby slept with us; the week after that, we actually spent a lot of time talking late into the night, often about nonsense and things of no consequence. After we decided on our wedding date, we were either exhausted from the million different things going on in our lives at that moment or we were…well, there were a lot of years we both went without, and we tried to make up for lost time.
Since the wedding, though, we've been adjusting to life that isn't comprised of stolen moments. We don't feel the need to tear our clothes off at any given moment because we don't know if it'll be our last chance. Some nights we just sleep. As much as of an adjustment as it is, I think we've both found that we truly love holding each other all night. She is the missing part of me. Even with all of our stupid disagreements and silly misunderstandings, she's the love of my life, and I need her more than I need oxygen. So I'll fight with her every day for the rest of my life if it means I get to spend the rest of my life with her. Fortunately, though, we've eased up on it—all the years of pent frustration and just plain missing each other are starting to even out, and it's no longer all coming out in a frenzy of emotions.
I blink a few times, snapping myself out of my thoughts, hoping the man in front of me didn't realize that my mind has been anywhere but on him for some time. I nod at him as he rambles on, watching my wife and daughter over his shoulder. Abby is utterly amazing and I feel as if I could stare at her all day and still not get enough. She's constantly learning and changing and growing, and I'm afraid that if I blink, I'll miss something. I've missed so much of her short life already.
She really is like a tiny adult most of the time with her very serious manner of accomplishing tasks and her often single-minded focus on getting something right. She has a bigger vocabulary than any child her age ought to, and she actually speaks with surprising clarity. Monica attributes this to Abby spending so much time with my mother and Anita, who never speak to our child as if she's anything but an equal, though I'm sure Monica's played a large part in this, too. She's always asking Abby questions and explaining things to her, making sure she understands the world around her.
This woman was born to be a mother. There's no doubt about it in my mind. She tells me that she was terrified for at least the first year of Abby's life, constantly worried that she'd hurt her or do something wrong, but watching her now, you'd never know she was anything but an expert at being a parent.
Monica holds out a piece of something—probably cake or a cookie—and Abby takes a delicate little bite. A few moments later, Abby's face scrunches up and she shakes her head. I can see Monica laugh and she holds a glass of milk to our daughter's lips, helping to wash down the offensive item she ingested. She smacks her lips pensively and starts chattering animatedly, most likely explaining exactly why she didn't like the treat, how it made her feel, and a few other notions for good measure. Monica, for her part, nods along managing to look a little amused and completely interested at the same time.
Truly a natural.
She looks up at me and grins, her eyes going wide a moment later at what must be a terrorized expression on my face. She reaches out for Abby, who skips merrily as they make their way over to me.
My wife to the rescue.
I hear a brief lull in the conversation and jump in, clearing my throat. "I'd like to introduce you to someone. This is my wife, Monica."
She pauses for a moment, waiting for me to complete the introduction when I see understanding dawn on her face as she realizes that I have no idea who this man is. She smiles graciously and holds out her hand. "It's wonderful to meet you Mr..."
"Harris. Wilbur Harris the fourth," he answers, shaking her hand delicately, and for the first time I realize just how pompous he sounds.
I see her eyes twinkle as she tries not to laugh, though Abby giggles loudly. "This is our daughter, Abby," she says, putting her hands on Abby's shoulders to try to keep her in line.
Wilbur doesn't seem to notice. He oh-so-gallantly bows down to our daughter's eyelevel, holding out his hand for her. "It's a pleasure, Abby."
I'm not sure what she sees, though I'm sure his bushy mustache must be up close and personal, but she looks up at us, laughter bubbling out of her. "Mommy, he—"
Monica clamps her hand over Abby's mouth; it does nothing to cure the giggles, but we're saved from whatever horrifying thing was about to fly out of her mouth.
Another thing I've had to adapt to—kids really will say anything that comes to mind.
"I'm sorry," Monica says to him as he stands up, looking a little offended. "She's had a lot of excitement tonight. You know how they can be." She looks at me, her eyes speaking volumes. "Darling," she drawls, doing her best to sound overly affectionate for Mr. Harris' benefit. "I'm sorry to pull you away, but I do so need your opinion on something." She smiles at the other man serenely, and I can actually see him blush a little under her gaze. If I weren't so sure she loved me almost as much as I love her, I'd be concerned at just how quickly she can turn men into mush. "Will you forgive me for taking him away from you?"
"Of course, Mrs. Bing," he answers, straightening out his suit jacket. "And might I add that it was lovely to meet you." He holds out his hand, giving mine a firm shake. "A pleasure, Mr. Bing."
I nod to him and slide my arm around Monica's shoulders, steering her in another direction. She takes Abby's hand again as we walk to the other side of the room; I can see her biting her lip as she tries to compose herself, though she avoids looking at me. I know if we make eye contact right now, we'll burst into laughter.
We may be married and parents, but I don't know that we're really "adults" yet. That probably doesn't bode well for our child, but it can't be helped.
Monica kneels down in front of Abby, but before she can say anything, Abby giggles again. "Mommy, he looked like a walrus!"
I shut my eyes tightly for a moment, forcing myself not to react. Abby's a little ham and the last thing she needs is encouragement. Even if she is completely right.
"Honey, that's not nice," Monica scolds gently, and I turn my attention back to the two of them. I'm sure she actually agrees with our daughter's assessment, but she'd never admit it to her.
Abby frowns, looking a little baffled. "But he does."
"You're not supposed to say things like that. You shouldn't call people names." Abby still looks puzzled, so Monica tries again. "Would you like it if someone said you looked like a little boy?"
Her eyes grow wide and she shakes her head. "I'm a girl!"
"I know that, sweetie, and you know that Mr. Harris isn't walrus, but that doesn't mean someone wouldn't say it." Abby wrinkles her forehead. "If you don't want someone to say things about you that aren't true, you can't say things about others that aren't true." Abby shifts from foot to foot, and I can tell that she doesn't quite understand what her mother is saying, so Monica sighs. "Don't call people names."
"Because sometimes names are mean. Even if he does look like a walrus, that doesn't mean he wants to be called that. Right?"
"I guess," she finally answers, sounding a little contrite.
Monica leans forward, giving her a kiss. "Go find your grandma, you little monster."
"No names, Mommy," Abby corrects her, very seriously, and I snort with laughter, doing my best to cover it up with a coughing fit.
Monica gives me a withering looking anyway. "Mommy's always the exception to the rule, especially when she calls you names out of love."
Abby looks up at me for verification, so I nod enthusiastically. "Mommy's right." Even if she weren't, she'd still be right. I haven't been married or a father for very long, but I have learned that it's always wisest to be united in front of our daughter. "Go find Grandma."
She turns and trots across the room to my mother and Monica stands, poking my side. "Do not laugh at her," she tells me.
I wrap an arm around her, pulling her close. "I'm trying. She's just so funny."
"Yes, but she doesn't need to know that. And if she knows that her daddy thinks she's funny…it's all over."
It's true. It probably sounds cocky, but my daughter adores me. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with all the time we spent apart—she's still getting to know me.
That's not entirely true; I think she knows enough, at least for her purposes. At three years old, her needs are fairly simple, and I go above and beyond to fulfill them. However, she's still so much a mystery to me. She has so much personality in such a small package that every time I learn something about her, three more things crop up that I don't know. Maybe it'll always be that way—maybe someday I'll know her better than she knows herself.
Even if she does adore me, though…it's mutual. My daughter is the best, and she constantly leaves me in awe.
"So, who was that man?" Monica asks, and I chuckle as I shake my head.
"I have no idea. I've never seen him before in my life. He's so incredibly dull that I think I feel asleep standing up while he was talking to me."
Monica cringes, leaning her head against my shoulder. "Well, what was he talking about?"
"I don't really know," I answer honestly. "He started talking about the size of his house and then he told me about where he likes to 'summer' and the business that he…runs? Owns? I'm not sure which. I think, and this sounds crazy, he was looking for permission to date my mother."
She bursts out laughing, clapping her hand over her mouth a moment later. "I'm sorry," she mumbles, but no one seems to have noticed her outburst. "Nora doesn't strike me as the sort of woman who would wait for her son to give his blessing."
"Nor would I expect her to. I've never had a say in what my mother does, I see no reason to start now. Wilbur must have thought that if he could charm me, I'd put in a good word with Mother."
"He doesn't look like the sort of man your mother would interested in," she says softly, looking over her shoulder to make sure Mr. Harris is nowhere around.
"I really doubt that he is, and I also doubt that she's interested in being courted at the moment. Being a grandmother keeps her busy."
She sighs, giving my waist a little squeeze. "Do you think we're holding her back?"
I pause to think about it, because it's something I've wondered about myself. For now, the three of us are still living in her house, and I think everyone is all right with that situation. I know that at some point we should find our own place, but my mother seems genuinely happy to have us here. She loves Abby so much and is so good with her, and for the first time in a very long time, I'm spending time with her and getting to know her. She's a fascinating woman. She loves Monica dearly, too, so much so that half the time, I can almost believe Monica is actually her daughter and I'm the son-in-law.
Of course, the time they spent together while I was overseas bonded them in ways I'll never understand, in ways I don't need to understand.
The added bonus for us is that she doesn't mind watching Abby. Not that I'm away from the house a lot, but I know that it gave Monica the ability to go to work every day, and she knew she was leaving our daughter in the hands of someone she could trust.
"I don't think so," I finally answer. "I think if she wanted us to leave, she wouldn't be shy in saying so. And I think us being here is almost as helpful to her as it is to us. She was out here on her own for such a long time and now I think she truly likes the company, and going from a house full of family to being out here by herself again…I don't know that I could do that to her. That's not to say she wouldn't use us as an excuse to give this guy the slip."
"I just worry we might be getting in her way. I don't want her to feel burdened."
I hug her tightly and she sighs into my chest. "You know, as I understand it, the two of you used to talk about things all the time. If you're really feeling this way, you could tell her. I'm sure she'll be happy to tell you that we're not a burden at all, and I'm pretty sure that she'd have a few things to say about taking Abby away from her."
"True," she agrees. "And I don't know how Abby would manage not being around her Grandma around all the time." She leans her head back, smiling at me. "Let's dance."
I let her lead me out into the middle of the room, sliding my right hand around her waist. Her right hand automatically fits into my left as her arm goes around my shoulders. Ever since we first truly danced at our wedding, we haven't been able to get enough of it. It seems such a silly little thing, but being able to hold each other for no reason other than to hold each other is one of the simple things that we don't ever want to take for granted. And she fits against me perfectly.
"Your mother certainly knows how to throw a party," Monica says, looking at the small crowd of people as we slowly turn to the music.
"She does at that," I agree. "I just hope she doesn't go overboard. I remember a lot of loud, over-the-top parties from while I was growing up, and I don't want her to fall into that trap again."
"Honey, it's just a Christmas party," she tells me, lifting an eyebrow in confusion.
"Holiday party," I correct, and Monica smiles out of the corner of her mouth. My mother was actually very particular in calling this a "holiday" party instead of a "Christmas" party. Some people, inexplicably, have issues with adding Hanukkah into the mix—I'm not sure if it's a disgusting holdover from the War or if people are oddly prejudiced against Jews, but Monica still feels the need to keep it quiet. But bless my mother because she decided by using the word "holiday," she could technically encompass Hanukkah for my wife without causing any sort of ruckus that might come from explicitly saying it was a celebration for the tiny Jewish population in our household, too. It was a small gesture, but Monica seems to appreciate it nonetheless.
"All right; holiday party. But I've been here for three and a half years and the only parties she's thrown are this and our wedding. I think her track record is all right." She stands on tiptoe for a moment, giving me a gentle kiss. "The war is over, her son is home and in one piece…I think that's reason enough to celebrate, don't you?"
I lean my forehead against hers, sighing contentedly. "I suppose it is."
In an odd way, being in the war feels like an entirely different lifetime, and at times it feels like it happened to an entirely different person. I suppose in some ways, I was completely different then. In a split second, my entire life changed and it was for the better. I wouldn't give up being a father for anything in the world. During the War, I felt like I had no one. Monica was so far away and it took so long to get her letters…I had Ross and Joey, but there's a feeling of loneliness that being at sea brings, and there's not much that anyone around you can do to change it. Sure; in a way, we were all brothers. We were all fighting the same fight, and we knew that we had each other's backs when it came down to it, but so many of us left families and loved ones back home that even though it bonded us, it kept us isolated. Now that I'm home, though, I feel like I have everyone that I need. I couldn't ask for more.
Though I'm learning I've changed in other ways since coming home. There's not a lot of time to really consider everything that's happened to you during war, not even during the lulls. It's so much easier and infinitely safer to keep looking forward, to not consider the horrors or the massacres or disasters you've seen. It'll make you crazy. It'll make you worse than crazy. So you ignore it.
Turns out that ignoring it only works for so long. Eventually, it starts to catch up to you.
I've started having nightmares. Night terrors, really, or flashbacks. I don't know how to describe it. I don't ever really know when it's going to hit me, either. The first one came just a few days after we were married and I know I scared the hell out of Monica. She said I started thrashing and kicking and she couldn't wake me up. I only remember being afraid. Eventually, I realized I was sobbing into Monica's chest, holding on for dear life, her heart pounding beneath my ear. God love her, she's taking it all in stride. I don't know how. She holds me until I calm down, sometimes without me ever waking up. She'll stay up with me for hours while I try to stop shaking. She lets me talk when I need to and is even willing to let me yell at her when something unexpected shakes me and sets me off. I don't know why she's so understanding about it—I don't know that I'd take kindly to someone yelling at me for no reason in the middle of the night about something I'd never been a part of, but she just waits until I'm done. I'm sure at some point she'll have enough and give it right back to me, but she seems to understand that it's not something I can control right now. The only positive to come out of me having these horrible, horrible dreams is that our need to argue and be upset over past hurts has gone down dramatically. Reliving all those horrors makes me realize all over again how lucky I am to have made it out alive, and my desire to waste any of our time together on the stupid things that we can't change is nonexistent. I know that if I didn't have her next to me, if I couldn't count on her to get me through the worst of it and still love me in the morning, I know for a fact that I wouldn't make it. I pity anyone of those poor bastards I knew who might be trying to handle this alone.
I know Ross has been dealing with this for a while now, too. He says it gets easier, but at this moment, I don't see how. I suppose after I've had more time to really come to terms with everything I saw, with everything I did…for right now, all I can do is hope that my extraordinary wife continues to be understanding. I think it's a testament to just how much she loves me that she's willing to stick with me through it all. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have affected Abby too much. I know that I've woken her a few times with my screaming, and it certainly scares the bejesus out of her, but Monica just explains that Daddy's having a bad dream, and Abby seems to understand that. That's usually when she'll crawl into bed with us and do her own version of soothing, which is mostly just falling asleep on my chest. Still, it usually helps. Even if I can't get back to sleep, having my daughter and wife so close at least calms me enough to unwind a bit.
All I can do is hope that Monica continues to be understanding and patient because I don't know how I'd get through this without her.
I tighten my arm around her, resting my chin on top of her head. "These Christmas songs are really sad," I say suddenly, and I feel her laugh into my neck.
"Well, the world's been really sad for a while," she tells me. "I know you must have heard some of these songs in the last few years."
"Sure. We all heard 'White Christmas.'" I don't know if there was a dry eye amongst my crew the first time we heard that one. "It's incredibly depressing."
She just shrugs. "I listened to it a lot when Abby was a baby. The second Christmas you were gone. I wore down the record to nothing."
"I'm sorry," I answer softly, pain gripping my heart for a few moments.
"It doesn't matter now, but it was hard being in your old bedroom with our baby, knowing you were on the other side of the world, alone."
I run my hand through her hair; I don't want tonight to be about the hard times of our past. I want us to look toward the joy of our future. "Well, I only heard this one a few times last year. The song is called, 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,' but one of the lines is, 'Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow—until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.' How is that merry?"
She chuckles a little, looking up at me—her eyes are bright with unshed tears. "It's from 'Meet Me In St. Louis.' If they ever decide to show it again I'll take you to see it. Judy Garland was singing to her little sister."
"And she chose that song?" I ask incredulously, making her smile.
"Maybe you had to be there. Her family was about to move to New York and I guess to try to make her sister feel better, she told her that one way or another, they'd be together, even if it wasn't where they originally thought they'd be. It's about not taking the time you have together for granted. 'So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.' It's about making the most of what you have, even if you know it's all going to change."
I eye her suspiciously, still trying to break the somber mood that seems to be settling over us. "That's pretty philosophical for a little song, Mon. Think you're reading too much into it?"
Fortunately for me, she plays along. "Probably. I can be horribly sentimental, you know."
I pull her in for another kiss; I'm sure more than a few of my mother's guests find it shocking, if not offensive, but I don't care. It took me more than three years to get back home; I plan to kiss Monica every chance I get, to hell with propriety. Let them live through a war and see if they don't hold onto the ones they love as tightly as possible.
Her hand comes up to stroke my cheek before she pulls back with a sigh. "I'll never get tired of that."
I kiss her forehead and we dance quietly for a few moments until I spot my brother-in-law on the other side of the room, chatting with Phoebe next to the bowl of eggnog and nod my head at them. "Look at that."
Monica looks over her shoulder for a moment before turning back to me, confusion on her face. "What am I looking at?"
"Ross and Phoebe."
"Well, is it just me, or is Ross starting to give Phoebe the look?"
"The look?" she asks, baffled.
"You know—the look. The way you look at someone when you start to see them in a different way."
She wrinkles her nose, looking over her shoulder again. "Really? Ross and Phoebe? Aren't they more like brother and sister?"
I shrug, watching Ross pour a cup of eggnog and hand it to her. "Well, he's single now…"
For about a year, Ross had been seeing a woman he met while convalescing, a candy striper named Rachel. Monica told me they'd hit it off quite nicely and that Rachel seemed like a very nice person. I didn't get to meet her until just before the wedding, but she did seem kind and as if she genuinely cared for Ross. A couple of weeks after the wedding, though, Ross came out to visit and told us he'd broken it off. He said he liked Rachel, he just couldn't see a future with her. He'd been with her over a year and never once thought about getting married, not even at some point down the road. He didn't think it was fair to waste her time or his. I completely understand that—every day feels like one day more than I ever thought I would get. I don't want to spend my precious time on something that doesn't feel worthwhile. I can't blame Ross for wanting to find his bliss.
Though judging by the way he's looking at our old friend, he may have found it. "Do you think he broke up with Rachel to be with Phoebe?" I whisper, and Monica shudders a little.
"I don't know that I want to think about it, honestly. He's my brother."
"Doesn't mean you can't be happy for him."
"Chandler…of course I'd be happy for him. If you're right and he's giving Phoebe the look, and she wants to look back at him, I'll be happy for them both. That doesn't mean I want to discuss it." She pauses, watching the two of them interact. "You know, it gives me a whole new appreciation for what we put Ross through every time we ran off to be together. It's a little awkward."
"I could see them working." Monica gives me a look and I just smile at her. "I can. I'm sorry you don't want to talk about it, but who's better for him than Phoebe? She's the only person in the world that can keep him in line and loosen him up. She'll make him have fun, she'll smack him around when he starts to take himself too seriously, and we know that she's a kind, good person who loves her friends unconditionally."
"I suppose you're right. I suppose that she's the only person I would consider good enough for my big brother, and I suppose he's the only person I'd consider good enough for her, too. But doesn't it seem a little too…clichéd? Your best friend who is also my big brother falling in love with my best friend, who's also a very good friend of yours, like it's the perfect, fairytale ending to a long book full of struggle and strife?"
"Everyone deserves a chance at perfect," I say simply, and Monica's face softens. "Let's pretend we don't notice what's happening," I whisper. "I bet if there's anything that would make Phoebe self-conscious, it'd be the two of us watching her every move through something like this."
Monica gives them another glance, and I pretend that I don't see the smile that tugs at her lips as she considers her brother and her best friend getting together. I look around the room again and spot Abby with my mother, the two of them holding hands. My mother's speaking to a couple of neighbors that I vaguely remember from my childhood, but it looks as if she's including Abby in the conversation; my daughter looks anything but bored with the adults around her. Monica's right—Abby really is three going on forty.
"So, do you want to hear my good news?" I ask, and Monica looks at me, surprised.
"You have good news? When did this happen? You've been with me all day."
"This is just a little something I've been working on."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense. Do tell."
"I'm sure you know that I've been feeling a little…lost since I got home." She nods sympathetically—she knows that I've had a hard time trying to find ways to feel worthwhile. I get to spend all day with my daughter, which is amazing and wonderful, but it kills me that my wife heads off to work every day while I sit around the house, talking to my mother or playing dolls and dress-up with Abby. I know Monica doesn't mind working—she's done it for years, and I know she mostly does it now so that Abby will always have anything she needs, but doesn't mean I have to feel good about it. I want to be able to contribute, too. "Well, I've been making some calls and visiting some old family friends. We have a lot of connections in a lot of different areas of business, and I've been looking around to see if anyone would be willing to help me out, either by giving me a job or pointing me in the right direction."
Her eyes grow wide, her expression turning excited. "And…"
"And…I've got a job at a publishing house."
"You do? Oh, Chandler!" She throws her arms around me, bouncing up and down in excitement.
"Don't you want to know what I'm going to be doing?" I tease, giving her a squeeze.
"Well, if I must," she teases back, kissing my cheek.
"I'm going to be helping edit books."
"Really?" she asks, stunned. "That's amazing."
"Right place at the right time," I answer with a shrug, feeling a little embarrassed suddenly by her praise. "Before I really screwed everything up, I was an English major in college, and my contact at the publisher has known me most of my life. He's willing to give me a chance."
"This is so incredible! Wait—does this mean you'll have to go into the city every day?"
She looks a little disappointed at that prospect, so I kiss the tip of her nose tenderly. "No. I'll have to go two or three times a week to collect new material or for meetings, but the other days I can stay here."
She hugs me again, holding me tight. "This is so perfect. I just know this job is going to be wonderful for you. I'm so happy for you! Congratulations! When do you start?"
I laugh a little at her excitement. "After the first of the year. Is this all right? I wanted to talk to you about it, but I wanted to be able to surprise you, too."
"I'm definitely surprised," she answers with a grin. "But, honey, you know it doesn't matter to me, right? You know that I don't mind—"
"I know, I know," I interrupt. "But I mind. I need to do something with my time, and this will give me a chance to do that."
"You're going to be so wonderful at this, I just know it," she says softly, stroking my cheek. She bites her lip a little, a twinkle in her eyes as she stands on tiptoe to whisper in my ear. "I can't wait to celebrate it with you later tonight."
I close my eyes for a moment, a shiver racing through my body. This woman…oh, this woman. She has such power over me, and all it takes is a few whispered words. "Why don't we go celebrate now?" I breathe, feeling my ego swell when she moans softly in my ear.
"I think people would notice if the hostess's son and daughter-in-law disappeared for an hour—"
"An hour?" I ask, raising my eyebrows as I grin. "My dear, you flatter me."
"But," she continues, ignoring me. "Even if they didn't notice us leaving, I think they'd definitely notice us coming back rumpled and disheveled." Her arms go around my shoulders as she kisses me slowly. "Oh, but it's tempting."
I revel in her kiss for a few moments before I pull back reluctantly. I look around the room before I take her hand, leading her down the hall and into the kitchen. "Where were we?" I ask as I gently back her into the counter, leaning down to kiss her again. Maybe there'll come a day when I don't crave being around Monica all the time. Maybe after I'm really used to being home and am finally secure in knowing that Monica and I are married and plan to be together for as many years as possible, my need for her won't be as strong.
Maybe. But I'm not banking on it.
"They'll probably notice this, too," she mumbles around my lips, her fingers raking through my hair.
"Don't care," I answer as I reach down, sliding my hand up her leg, under her dress, until I reach her thigh, grabbing her gently, and I feel her melt into me.
Finally, we break apart, our breathing heavy. I move my hands back to her waist, keeping her close, and she presses gentle kisses to my throat.
"I am really proud of you," she whispers. "Your job is to read—that's incredible."
A grin spreads across my face as I give her sides a gentle squeeze. "I'm pretty excited about it, honestly."
"My husband the editor," she says as she leans back, her eyes filled with love and pride.
"Makes me sound like some sort of hotshot, doesn't it?"
"You are a hotshot," she answers immediately. "Don't you forget it."
I lean down and give her another kiss, pulling her in for a hug. It's been a hell of a year. A war ended. I nearly died. I found out that I'm a father. I married the love of my life. Despite everything, I think that's the part that really matters—my family. My wife and daughter make all the horrors, time apart, and trauma worth it. I fought for them, and I'd die for them. I'd die for them right now if I had to. As long as I hold onto that, though, I think we'll be able to get through anything, including the repercussions of everything I saw over the course of three years abroad.
"I guess the timing's right," she says suddenly, and I kiss her cheek, closing my eyes.
"For you to go to work."
"Mmmm," I agree. "I'm sure Mother is eager to have Abby all to herself again. She would never say it, especially not to me, but I think she misses their time together."
"Probably," Monica answers. "But I was thinking about quitting my job."
I take her face in my hands, grinning at her. "Good. I want to take care of you, Monica. I know I keep saying that, but I mean it. I realize that we're still in my mother's house, and as long as we're here, I'm not really looking out for you and Abby the way I ought to, but if you want to quit, that's fine by me." I kiss her forehead before asking, "What brought this on?"
I freeze, my entire body going rigid as I slowly look down to her; she looks back at me expectantly, almost nervously. "You're what?"
"I'm pregnant," she repeats softly , and I watch her throat bob as she swallows slowly, waiting for me to respond.
I feel a smile starting to pull at my lips even though the words just aren't sinking in. "What?"
She rolls her eyes at me playfully even as they fill with tears. "We're having another baby."
"We're having a baby?" I feel excitement and joy starting to curl in my heart, spreading through my body like wildfire. "Are you sure?"
"You have your secret meetings, I have mine," she answers, and I swipe my thumbs across her cheeks, brushing away the tears even though I feel myself start to well up, too.
"Oh, my God," I whisper, a laugh bubbling out of me.
"I went to the doctor yesterday," she explains. "I left work a little early to get myself checked and…here we are. I didn't want to say anything in case I was wrong, and then I thought that I would tell you at Christmas, but I couldn't wait any longer."
"You're pregnant?" I ask, and I feel a little stupid because I can't figure out how to ask anything else.
She smiles up at me brightly, nodding happily. "Pregnant," she confirms.
"How long?" I finally manage to gasp, gently holding her shoulders as I step back, trying to find any difference in how she looks.
"About two months." She looks at me again, suddenly anxious. "You're happy, right?"
I burst out laughing. "You have to be joking."
"I just want to be sure that you really want this. Talking about having another baby and actually having one are two very different things."
"I want it so much," I answer, taking a few steps closer to her. "I want our big, happy family."
"Well, give us a few more months," she answers, looking down at her stomach, and my knees almost buckle in response. "It still needs a little more time."
"A baby?" I ask, part of me still disbelieving. "You're sure?"
She takes my hand and puts it low on her stomach, and even though I can't feel anything yet, I know that somewhere under there our baby rests, waiting for the day to join us. "I'm sure," she answers softly, and I feel myself break. I cover my eyes with my free hand as I weep; I'm going to be a father again.
We're having a baby! I can't believe it.
She slides her arms around my waist as she steps into me, and for a few moments I cry into her hair, happiness nearly exploding out of me.
"You got pregnant awfully fast," I finally mumble, and she lets out a watery laugh.
"Both times, it seems. Congratulations to you for getting the job done so efficiently."
I laugh a little, taking her face in my hands one more time. "Say it again."
She stands on tiptoe, bracing her hands on my shoulders. "We're having a baby," she tells me softly, and I pull her to me, kissing her as fiercely as I dare.
A new member of our family is on its way; this news trumps me getting a job any day of the week. I can't believe I never suspected anything, but then, why would I have any reason to?
"Oh, wow," I whisper as I hold her close. "Oh, wow."
She nods before pressing her forehead against mine. "I know. Thank you so much." I tilt my head just a little in confusion, and I see her smile. "Thank you for coming home."
"Thank you for giving me a home to come back to. I love you, Monica, so much more than you will ever know."
"It's not half as much as I love you," she answers.
I pull back, putting my hand on her stomach once more, looking at her in wonder. Part of me still can't comprehend it all.
"Our baby is really in there? You're sure?"
She laughs, covering my hand with her, giving my fingers a little squeeze. "Yes. I'm positive; safe and sound, too, I promise."
My heart flutters at the thought of our baby inside Monica—tiny and perfect—and I realize just how much I want this, and how close I came to never having it. Six months ago, I nearly died at sea with only the memory of the girl I left behind to hold on to. Now, I'm alive, I'm healthy, I'm married to the most extraordinary woman in the world, and I have a family. I have the life I wanted for so long.
Oh, God, I'm so lucky.
Her eyes fill with tears as I gently stroke her stomach in wonder, still not quite comprehending that there's actually someone growing inside of my wife. "So, what do you think?" she asks softly, her hand coming up to caress my cheek.
"Hmmm?" I ask distractedly, almost unable to tear my eyes away from her belly for even a moment. "About?"
"You think it's a boy or a girl?"
I put my free hand on the back of her neck, pulling her gently to me as I kiss her forehead. "Oh, honey, I don't care. I really don't. I just want it to be happy and healthy."
She sniffles as she looks up at me, a little half-smile on her face. "You want another girl," she says matter-of-factly, and I always forget that she can read me like a book most of the time.
"I can't say that I don't love the idea of another little Abby running around," I answer, trying to contain my grin, the thought of it making me giddy. "I would love to have another little angel to spoil. But I would be just as happy with a boy. What do you want?"
She pulls me into her arms, burying her face in my neck. "I just want our family. That's all I've ever wanted. You, our daughter, our baby…and anyone else who might come along after that. That's all."
I can't help myself; another sob rushes out of me and I rest my head against her shoulder, holding her close, our baby—so tiny and yet already so perfect—nestled between us.
She's having our baby. It's such an intense, amazing, overwhelming feeling of joy that I don't know if I could ever put it all into words.
But…I have my wife, our daughter, and our unborn child.
For now, I have everything.
And that's all that matters.
And they lived happily ever after.
So...that happened. Hard to believe it's over.
Spoiler alert—this was originally called, "It Had To Be You." It's still listed in my files as that. I thought that was too much, though, so then it was going to be "Wonderful You," which then morphed into "You." I know someone asked about the title at some point, but I didn't want to answer until I got to the end.
All right, so some stuff. I had a lot of influences for this, not the least of which is my own personal romanticizing of this particular era. I watch a lot of movies from that time frame (especially the Fred & Gingers), and that played into this piece. When Harry Met Sally…was heavy in my mind as I wrote, too, because there's something about that movie that has a timeless quality. A League Of Their Own played a factor, too, to a degree, because it's one of my favorite movies about one of the most interesting eras in America's history, and I'm sure it in no small way, that era was at least subconsciously a factor in me deciding to write this story. There are also a few dashes of an old episode of Who's the Boss?, if you can believe that. Inspiration comes from any and every source.
And it just occurred to me that all three of those specifically named has a version of "It Had To Be You" in it. All these months and I just figured that out. Wow.
I keep forgetting to mention, but yes—I know what the wedding dress looked like. I'll post the pictures on this story's Tumblr (and I'll either have to redo the entire thing so that it goes from beginning to end, or see if there's a way to filter it so that anyone new doesn't read it the wrong way…oy).
But I kind of want to just say thanks to all of you—not just for your support through this massive undertaking, but for the last ten months, too. You've all been very supportive of my writing, my obsessive updates, my mood swings, all of it, and I appreciate it more than you could know. They say with pain comes growth…well, I think I've grown as a writer more in the last year as a result of my excessively traumatic life than I ever could have imagined, and writing this story has been a cathartic response to a very personal, very painful situation that capped off a considerably less-than-stellar year, and the response all of you have given me has been overwhelming in the best way possible. So seriously—thank you. Thank you, thank you, a million and a half times, THANK YOU.
I need to also thank Kel for her help during all of this. Without her, I might not have actually even published this to begin with. She pushed me when I needed pushing, gave me her thoughts and opinions (not all writing related, either, naturally), has been a sounding board, and honestly, more helpful than I can possibly express in such a small amount of time and space. I don't know if she realizes that. So, you guys should thank her, too, while you're at it because, like I said, this might not have seen the light of day if she hadn't told me that I needed to post it. Sight unseen, mind you—she never read a bit of it before anyone else, which I think speaks volumes to the amount of faith she has in my abilities. Kel…seriously. Thanks.
I don't know if this sounds like a goodbye, but it's not. I hope not, at any rate. I want to keep writing, but I'm tapped out at the moment. Maybe I just need to have this story out there and complete before my mind will let me work on something else. Maybe I need to take a little breather—I don't know. We'll see what happens. It's anyone's guess at this point (I do accept ideas and prompts, though, if anyone has that. I'll always at least consider something). I do know that the last few months I've spent writing have been some of the most amazing of my life, if nothing else because I never knew I could do this. I know it's only a fanfic, but it feels like so much more, at least to me. At any rate, I'm going to sit back for a little while and breathe—posting the last chapter of this is incredibly hard and sad, more so than I could have anticipated, but I'm so happy that I've done this. Thank you all so much for taking me in and letting me be part of your world, and for being so welcoming to what I tried to bring to the table.
You're all amazing people.