Contest entry for the May to December Romance Contest
Title: Now & Then
Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable characters herein. No copyright infringement is intended.
Bella stepped out of the closet, her arms out wide. She peered down at her little black dress before putting her hands on her hips and glancing at Edward. He was on the bed, laptop glowing, his socked toes rubbing against one another as he hit the space bar twice and smiled.
"What'dya think?" Bella asked, doing a slow turn.
"I think I missed the memo about having black-tie attire sex tonight," Edward said, making a loop with his finger, urging her to turn again. "But I'll take it."
"I can't do it in the dress, it's dry clean only," she said, giving her butt a pop for his sake before turning back around. "But this'll do, right?"
"Absolutely. Do for what?" Edward asked, swiping up a pile of strewn papers to the left of him.
"Saturday. Alice's birthday," Bella said, her arms dropping.
"Shit," Edward whispered, pausing with the papers in his hand.
"You remember. The party no one has shut up about for six weeks? The one that means the world to her? The one that Jasper is planning to propose at? The next big birthday party she has been planning since her sixteenth birthday party?"
"The party that six weeks ago I said, 'hey, Edward, please, please put this on your schedule because it's really important to me' and you said, 'yep.' That fucking party," Bella said, wrenching an arm around to fiddle with the zipper.
Edward put the computer to the side and the papers on top of it before getting up and easily yanking the zipper of her dress down. Bella yanked off the sleeves and turned expectantly.
"The Small Business Association is having a thing on Saturday," he said, flat and tired.
"How very," Bella said, kicking the dress to the floor.
"The city commissioner is going to be there with the rest of the board. They're voting on the storefront of the shop next month. I can't not be there. We've already put so much money into this, Bella...it's senseless not to secure it anyway I can."
Bella picked up his worn undershirt from the floor and yanked it over her head before rounding out of the bedroom and into the kitchen where she began on the sink full of dishes, slamming them loudly and splashing water everywhere. He picked up a dishrag and wiped at the counter in silence for five minutes before she exploded.
"You said!" Bella shouted over the grinding noise of the garbage disposal as she used a fork to jam scraps of food down the sink. He dropped the rag and went for the fridge. "You said you'd be there! I asked you. For weeks, I asked if you would make sure to be free the sixteenth! You knew, Edward. You knew about this for weeks! And you just couldn't manage-"
"No," he said, slamming the fridge and twisting the cap from a bottle of beer. "I couldn't manage. You think I wanna be stuck at these things? Do you think that's fun for me?" he asked, squinting his eyes and shaking his head.
"Do you think it's fun for me to be humiliated in front of my friends when you don't show up again?" Bella shouted, her face red with frustration as the fork stabbed more food down.
"Oh, sorry I put your friends out. I'll just tell the commissioner to calm the fuck down and not to worry. I'll just explain I turned down his invitation so I could go do keg stands and Jell-o shots. I mean, we don't want to be embarrassed in front of the girls."
"It isn't-!" Bella stopped and took a deep breath. "It isn't even about them. It's about me. This was important, and you don't care."
"Yes I care," he said. "It's not about not caring; it's about prioritizing."
"The things you care about should be the priority!" she shouted back, hands up in the air.
"Yeah, well, back over in the land of jobs and responsibility, it doesn't always work that way, unfortunately. You know the hell it took to even get them to consider this expansion. When the powers-that-be send you a last minute invite, you don't tell them you have to go to the fucking bar that night for pink squirrels and birthday cake."
There was a metallic clang from the fork when it hit the sink, and Bella slammed her hand on the spigot, cutting the water off.
"Not once," she said, turning slowly, her voice low and slow, "have I ever implied that anything I do is more important than what you have going on."
Edward leaned against the kitchen counter and took two long gulps from his beer.
"You will not do that to me, either," she said. "I might not be bogged down with your stressful little business bullshit, but I'll be damned if you act like anything I choose to do is less valid than you and your shit, Cullen. You're not God up in here."
"Explain to me how drinks with your girlfriends is more important than-"
"It's not about the fucking drinks!"
"Oh? I think it is. You were fine ten minutes ago, and not fine when I said I couldn't go. It's obviously about the motherfucking drinks."
"It's about all of it. I literally can't remember the last time you came out at night with me. That time we ordered pizza in and you kept your phone glued to your face working out contract details on our two year anniversary, I sat right next to you and watched shitty movies. When your mom came to see you, I took her on a tour of the city while you worked. When-"
"I get it!" he shouted. "But you knew this shit, Bella. You know I'm in up to my neck and what did you say? Last year, when we really started considering and working on the expansion and all this came up, what did you say to me?"
"I said I'd be there," she said calmly.
"But it never occurred to me you wouldn't be here, too."
"What the fuck, exactly, do you want me to say to you? What are you looking for here?" Edward asked.
"I'm not looking for a quick plow after midnight when you walk in exhausted and then roll over and go to sleep. I'm not looking to tell other guys 'no, I have a boyfriend...you just never see him' when I get hit on. I'm not looking to sit here and eat alone every night, and I hate that the only thing that I look forward to every day is the possibility of that quick plow. I'm so tired of missing you. I'm fucking tired," Bella said, starting strong but ending weak, then pushing off the counter to go to bed.
"Hey!" Edward shouted, tugging the hem of her shirt when she passed, "you think I'm not tired? I'm the one actually doing the work-"
"Oh, don't! Don't you do that!"
Her eyes were wide and her face on fire.
"Don't what? I'd love to be at a fucking pub four nights a week. Okay? I'd love to be here to screw at your beck and call 24-7 but I can't because I'm busting my ass so I can spend the rest of my life not busting my ass so that maybe, someday, you'll be happy with how things are! I'm old! I can't hang out in bars every night and plan my life around birthday parties and day drinking and sleeping through classes. I did all that shit already, now it's grown-up time!"
"I don't want that! If this is all for me, to make me happy, you can stop now, because it's not working! I'd rather you work at McDonalds-"
"Yes. I'll just piss the last six years of work down the toilet because Bella wants me to go to the bar. That's a sound plan."
"And what do I do? Go to business galas with fucking city council members and skip out on the fun parts of life you got to have?"
"Yeah, you seem like you're having a real blast," he said flatly.
Bella's arm wound back quickly, but he caught her wrist mid-air.
"You're gonna hit me?" he laughed, incredulous and really pissed.
Bella jerked her wrist and he let go. She walked backwards a few steps, until she was up against the counter again.
She crossed her arms, and the lump in her throat just served as a warning that she was about to utter words she never imagined saying.
"I don't want this."
"Right. Well. One of us was bound to say it soon anyway," Edward said, picking up his bottle and drinking the rest in one long swallow.
Bella looked at her feet, feeling like she'd just been abruptly shoved in an alternate universe that made absolutely no sense. Nothing felt warm or familiar after she'd said those words.
"I'm going to go to Alice's," Bella whispered.
Edward rubbed his tired eyes and nodded. He couldn't even begin to deal with the emotional fallout of a break up, which is why he had no business being in a relationship at all.
Bella had a class at eleven the next morning, so she grabbed her own computer and the books she'd need, her toothbrush, and a few changes of clothes.
Edward had an early morning as always, so he tried to sleep after she'd said goodbye, but instead of sleep, he laid awake and remembered the first time she said hello.
The bell above the door jingled and Jasper looked at Edward, who squeezed his eyes shut.
"I'll buy lunch if you go," Edward him. Jasper pointed at the receipts with his pen.
"I'll buy you the fucking moon if you go," Jasper said.
It was a week before Christmas break in a college town at Board Things, which meant every wannabe snowboarder in the county was looking to buy, rent or repair their equipment for the upcoming break—which was great for business but terrible for the nerves.
Out in the front, a brunette stood at the counter, a black and lime green free-ride board under her arm.
"What's up?" Edward asked from the other side of the counter, nodding at the board. He held his hands out, and the brunette heaved it over so it lay on the counter looking like a patient ready for surgery.
"My friend Emmett works here," she began.
"I hope you're using the term 'work' loosely," Edward said with a grin. "He mostly just calls in and sleeps in the back."
"That'd be him," Bella laughed. Edward shook his head and rolled his eyes. Emmett was off for three weeks to go skiing in Aspen, but when he was around, he only remained employed because he was entertaining, and he knew his shit.
"What can we do for you?" Edward asked, but looking at the board, he already knew.
"Rode too hard for years and now it's all blown out," Bella said, running her finger along the worn edge.
Edward glanced up at her with a half smile before looking back down at the board.
"Sure is," he agreed, his hands now braced on the counter. "You want it fixed, or you want to trade it in?"
"Like I'd trade in a perfectly good and faithful friend for something new and shiny. I like older things anyway. More character," she said. "How much to fix it?"
Edward lifted the board on its blown-out edge and squinted one eye.
"You know, it would take awhile. We're slammed," he said, then lay it back down. "We sell refurbished boards, or you can fix this yourself."
"You've never met me," Bella laughed, and he smiled back up at her. "I can't even fix my leaky faucet, and that isn't near as dear to me."
"What's your name?" he asked her.
"Now I've met you. Trust me, you can fix this. Do a Google search—"
"I'm offering to pay your business for…business," she said with a laugh. "Stop turning my business away!"
"Okay, fair point," Edward said. She beamed and he noticed her easy smile and obvious affection for her board, noticed her lopsided ponytail and the obviously in shape body under her unzipped coat. Bella noticed things, too-mostly that this guy was hot and smiled with the left corner of his mouth, that his lower lip was chapped and there was one very loose curl just above his left sideburn that suited the rest of his wayward hair very, very nicely. He wore an old-school Adidas sweatshirt in bright red, but the collar had been cut away from his neck, and the cuffs were frayed.
"You get this thing insured?"
"It's really cheap and easy to fix," he said with a wince. In truth, it was a waste of time to fix it when the shop was so busy. If it were the off-season he'd have it done in ten minutes; as it were it would take two weeks just to get to it. "But you can leave it. I can have it done in two weeks."
"Two weeks? You just said it was simple!"
"It's Christmas break. Your buddy Emmett took off in the middle of our busy season. You know how many simple fixes I have back there?" he asked, jabbing a thumb behind him.
"Four hundred and twelve?" she deadpanned.
"Yeah, that's it exactly," he laughed.
"Okay," Bella said. "I'll be all alone on Christmas, with my broken board, watching the snow fall—"
"We rent boards out."
"You were supposed to have sympathy for me, not offer a rental," she said.
He laughed and lifted the board but didn't hand it back, instead putting it under his own arm.
"I'll do it on my own time," he told her. Bella's eyes widened.
"Is that going to cost much more?"
"Merry Christmas, it's on the house," he said, then with his free hand slid a card in front of her. "Leave your name and number. I'll call you for pick up."
"Wait. Are you serious?" she asked, her cheeks turning pink. "I didn't mean to lay the guilt on that thick—"
"You're not that good," he told her. "We're a small business. Customer service is important."
"This goes above and beyond."
"Yeah, well, so do you," he told her. He pushed away from the counter and called over his shoulder. "Make sure you leave that number."
The next night, Bella showed up five minutes before closing with a tin of Christmas cookies. Edward had called her earlier in the afternoon and told her the board would be done by closing that day.
He wasn't at the counter; a blonde guy with gauges the size of dimes was there instead. He had about six thin leather cords around his neck and a badge that read, HEY! I'M JASPER, clearly made with a Sharpie and scotch tape.
The store was empty; Jasper was counting out a drawer when he looked up at Bella.
"Blown-out Bella?" he asked. She made a face, but she'd earned the title when she made her own intro the day before.
"That'd be me," she said.
"Your board's in back, you can go ahead," he said, swaying his head toward the Employee Only hallway.
"Are you sure…?"
"The boss does not run a tight ship," Jasper said. Bella figured that. The place was known around campus for being laid back and run by extreme athletes. Besides, anyone willing to keep Emmett employed couldn't be that strict about rules.
The hall led to a single back room that was more like a warehouse and vaster than the front made it look. Tools and boxes of random stock were everywhere, and along each wall was a cluttered, long work bench with skis, boots, boards and scattered parts.
Edward was kind of squatting in front of a bench, where Bella's board was in a vise.
"Hey. That guy said I could come back…" she trailed off and he straightened up with a smile.
"Yeah, yeah, come back. I'll show you what I did," he said, unwinding the vice quickly but with strength, his arm one telling fraction of the athlete's body he had under there.
"Nice guns, champ," Bella said, and when Edward furrowed a brow she pointed to his bicep.
"You like that?" he asked with a laugh, finishing off with the vise.
"Muscles, men, you know how that goes," Bella said holding out the tin. "I made you some cookies for your effort."
"Really?" he asked with a genuine smile that made Bella pleased she made the effort.
"Yeah. So, Merry Christmas to you, too," she said. He took the tin while Bella moved to inspect her board.
"How did you do this?" she crowed. It looked brand new, but still hers.
"Magic hands," Edward replied as Bella ran her hand up the board. "The epoxy should be set by now—" He cut off with a loud burst of laughter and Bella swung around. To her horror, it turned out Christmas cookies purchased in the tin were still sealed in cellophane.
"Oh my god," she muttered, her burning face covered by her hands as Edward laughed on.
"I slaved away for you and you bought cookies," he said. "And then lied!"
"Because," Bella said, "I wanted you to realize the thought behind it was all very sincere. But I can't bake."
"Likely story," he said, putting the tin on the bench and picking up the board. "Do you want me to take this to your car?"
"I lug this bitch up mountains, for crying out loud," Bella exaggerated. "Besides, you do me one more favor and I'm going to have to pretend I know how to crochet a scarf or something."
He handed over the board and Bella took it in both arms before shifting it to one.
"Seriously, thank you so much," she said.
"Yup. It's what I do."
"Let me fix the cookie thing," she said, her stomach flipping with nerves. But why not just ask the guy out? He was hot and funny and nice but not too nice, so why shouldn't she just take a chance?
"I don't want cookies you don't know how to bake," he laughed.
"I'll buy you a coffee."
He paused, taken aback, but pleasantly, it seemed to Bella.
"Yeah?" he asked.
"Can we make it a beer?" he asked.
"If you show face, I'll bring the cash. Unless you wait until February. I can't buy you a beer. Legally, anyway."
He squinted his eyes and leaned in.
"How old are you?"
"How are you twenty? You're friends with Emmett. He's like, twenty-eight!"
"We have a few classes together. He's like, a tenth-year undergrad," Bella retorted. "Why, how old are you?"
"Oh my God, I just asked an old man out," Bella said, hiding her eyes before pointing accusingly at Edward. "You do not look thirty-two! What kind of racket is this?"
"It's my dumbass smile," he said, pointing to it. Bella agreed, and then her eyes were bouncing around the back room while her thoughts were bouncing around Emmett's tales of work and how chill his boss was.
"You don't just work here, do you?" Bella asked.
"Proprietor of this fine establishment," he said with a shrug.
"Okay. I have to go…cry in shame and shake my fist at the injustice of all of this," she said, planning on high-tailing it out of there, mortified but pretty sad, too. She liked the guy.
"Okay," Edward said, watching her stand there, gaping at him.
"Are you sure you're thirty-two?"
"Wait 'til I break this down for you," he said. "When you were six and starting the first grade, I was graduating high school."
"Are you trying to turn me off?"
"Is it working?"
"Not even a little," Bella said. Edward took a step back.
"Hah. Don't play with an old man, kid," he said. "Go on, take your board and have a good break."
"I'm actually not a kid," Bella said, looking him straight in the eye.
"I see that."
She heaved the board over her shoulder and bid adieu. She didn't come back until February and when she did, she had a case of beer and steel determination.
Three days after leaving to stay with Alice, Bella carried the last of her things to the trunk of her car and was just leaving an envelope on the kitchen table when Edward came in the door.
His cheeks were pink from the cold; he had a three day beard and circles under his eyes. He paused at the door when he saw Bella there and the mail in his hand went slack.
"I didn't think you'd be here," she said.
She didn't want to run into him, which was precisely why she chose the Wednesday of Edward's heaviest scheduled week and late at night to move her things out.
"Late lunch. I'm headed back, I forgot my phone this morning. Get all of your stuff out?" he asked, flipping through some mail.
"Yeah. It's all gone. So."
"How'd you get the dresser out?" he asked, looking up from the mail. He and Emmett had planned on moving it on Saturday.
"Right. That's...really fucking nice. You know what? Leave the key on the table-"
"Don't swear at me! You're so busy, I didn't want to bother you at all anymore."
"You're bothering me now, so if you're done here-"
Bella held up the envelope and dropped it on the table again.
"Utilities and phone."
"I don't want your money."
"Just take the money. I don't want to feel like I owe you a damned thing."
Edward raised his eyebrows and casually picked up the envelope, opening it and counting the cash.
"You're forty bucks short," he said.
"I am not!"
"Remember last month when your mother had a breakdown in Iceland or wherever the hell she was, and you called her 800 times? That, and gas went up again, and you're the only one who turns the heat up to eighty degrees—so, if you want to be fair..."
Bella snatched the envelope from his hands while her own shook.
"I always suspected the day would come when you acted like you're so fucking superior over me because you're older...but I could never see that in you, not outwardly. I should've listened to that instinct. I never thought you even noticed the difference in us, and maybe you didn't. But Edward, either way, you're just a fucking dick."
"Does that mean you don't have the forty bucks right now?" he asked.
Bella pressed her lips together, devastated that he could be like this. And she was confused because...was this even the same guy? And hurt because how could he? This was her. Her and him.
"I'll ask Jacob to borrow the money," Bella lied. "He's good to me like that."
Bella sat on Alice's couch, unpacking a carton that contained her former junk drawer, hot tears streaming silently down her cheeks.
"Was he a dick?" Alice asked.
Bella nodded and tossed an empty gum wrapper into the trashcan Alice dragged over.
"What did he say?" Alice asked.
Just then, the door opened and in entered Emmett and Alice's roommate Rosalie, who for some great unknown reason was dating Emmett, who was also in tow. They dodged Bella's belongings spread on the floor while holding a couple boxes of pizza.
"He just..." Bella trailed off, heaving a pile of books into her lap. "I don't know what happened. To us."
"Okay, let's break it down," Rose said, making room for herself on the couch by kicking Bella's junk to the ground. Emmett busied himself by grabbing beer and napkins.
Bella glanced at Emmett when Rose lifted the lid of the pizza box in her lap and Alice dug right in.
"Her words don't leave this room," Rosalie said to Emmett, noticing Bella's hesitation.
"Not even hearing," Emmett mumbled, raising the volume on the TV. Emmett figured when your boss, who is your buddy, and his girl, who's your friend, break up, that it's best not to hear or say a damned thing.
"He said..." Bella sucked in a deep breath. "He wants forty bucks."
"He wants forty bucks?" Alice repeated. "Why does he want forty bucks?"
"Seriously?" Rosalie asked.
"Bills," Bella said, waving her hand. "It was how he said it."
"But what exactly happened? I mean, you two...broke up. It's hard to even comprehend," Alice said. "What the hell happened?"
"What it came down to is he wants his business to expand and succeed...and I just want him," Bella shrugged.
"Scratch that," Rosalie said. "Wanted him. Past tense."
"Wait a second," Emmett said, cracking open another beer and handing it to Bella. "You've known about his plans for forever. So, fuck what I said earlier. I'm interjecting with an opinion: you're wrong."
Alice gasped at Emmett. This was not how post-break up commentary and discussion was supposed to go.
"I didn't think it'd be like how it is," Bella shrugged. "I don't even see him...ever. And when I do he's sleeping, and it's hard. It's fucking so hard to miss him all the time." With that, she dropped the pizza back in the box and sobbed into her beer.
"But don't you miss him even more if you're broken up?" Emmett asked, undeterred by girl tears. "That's totally illogical."
"You know what he said to me?" Bella asked with swollen, wet eyes staring at Emmett. "He said...he's busting his ass so he can bust his ass some more...and then it just hit me," Bella said, running her hand from her forehead to the top of her head, pushing her hair back.
"What?" Alice asked.
"It'll always be this way. He will always be too busy, and I will always be waiting for him. The past few years I've been telling myself 'just get through this busy season, just get through this audit, just leave him be while he's planning this expansion.' Then it starts all over again, and I have let two years go by waiting on him and not living how a twenty-three-year-old can. I haven't taken advantage of the limited freedom in life I have...and I'm always just telling myself it will change later. But it won't. This is what he's devoting his life to...and I'm not the type of person who can be in a relationship like that."
Alice and Rose nodded in sympathy, but Emmett looked puzzled.
"You're making this way too complicated," he told her.
"The problem is," Bella continued, "I'm in love with him. I'm in love with someone who isn't there. Ever. We're at two different places in life, and it wouldn't be fair for either of us to stay together. Either he regresses, or I give things up. I mean, how do you fix that?"
"That's a bitch," Emmett said, reaching for more pizza.
Alice spent the next three days plying Bella with chips and Kleenex.
Bella spent time remembering everything that went right in her relationship with Edward.
Like the first time she made a cake for him on his thirty-third birthday, and it was raw in the middle. Everyone made fun of her and refused to eat it, but Edward ate three pieces. With a spoon and a smile.
Or the time she cried all the way through a rerun of E.R., and he explained how and why women actually rarely died in childbirth in the US.
Or the times she drank so much she couldn't even stumble home, and he'd come out in the middle of the night to pick her up and he'd just smile and ask if she had fun and tell her he was glad she was home.
Or the way he always, always said "we" when talking to someone else about anything. The way he was proud of her even when she felt there was nothing much to be proud of.
"Was it weird?" Alice asked Bella, her bright red lips hovering over her soup spoon.
"What do you think? He busted out a pool of Jell-O and chicken wire or something?" Rosalie asked Alice, poking her straw around the crushed ice in her coke.
Bella guffawed into her burger and shook her head.
"No, it wasn't weird," she said, then paused thoughtfully, "But it was different."
Both girls leaned in and Bella leaned back, her fork mid-air.
"I don't know if it's because he's older or because he's him," she said. "But. Let's be real, there is a difference between a twenty-year-old fumbler and a thirty-two-year-old man."
Rosalie nodded, eyes wide as she dipped a fry in ketchup.
"Why do you think I deal with Emmett?" she asked. "Here's a hint: bed."
But Alice rolled her hand for more.
"No, I don't know. Tell me these differences!" she said.
"I think," Bella said, "It's a confidence thing? He doesn't hesitate, but he's not in there jack-hammering away, either. He knows what he's doing without being cocky about it, and he isn't remotely shy about saying what he wants or asking about what I want. It's like he's over the self-conscious bullshit and swaggering arrogance of his twenties, I think. He's just…assured?"
"What if he starts to get like, old man erectile dysfunction?" Alice asked. "Or gray pubes?"
"Alice, he's thirty-two, not seventy-two," Rosalie said.
"He's in better shape than me," Bella said, rolling her eyes at Alice. "Besides, I'm not sure what we're even doing. I like being with him, I like sleeping with him. He's fun and smart, but he hasn't said anything like…'hey, wanna go steady'? I'm not sure if we're exclusive or casually dating or what."
"You better clear that up," Rosalie said, and Alice nodded along sagely.
"Because," they said at the same time, looking at her flatly.
"Because of that," Rosalie said, pointing her fork at Bella's smile. "I'd be sure you're on the same page."
"What page am I even on?" Bella laughed, but the truth was, she was at the end of the page sitting on a big fat question mark. She wanted to be with him in all of the important ways. They'd been seeing each other casually since February; there were dinners, some Netflix, and before the snow had melted, they even went out snowboarding. She was better at it than he'd anticipated, probably even better than him. But did three months of dating and having sex twice actually mean anything out in the real adult world? It's a weird thing, the university bubble. Different rules of conduct regarding hooking up and dating and all of it, Bella thought. She had no idea what Edward was thinking.
After lunch, Bella ordered a club sandwich to go and figured she'd march right over to Board Things to just ask him. That was a huge benefit of dating someone older-she never had to see again if things got weird and he decided she was a lunatic for bringing it up so soon.
"I didn't make this, but I brought it with warm thoughts," Bella said, holding up a white paper bag. Edward looked up from the big box of ski caps on the counter he'd been sorting through and grinned.
"Come here," he said, leaning over the counter, a bright yellow hat in his hand, gesturing at her.
"What?" Bella asked, already leaning in.
He kissed her and pulled the hat down on her head then managed to take the bag from her.
He leaned away and peered in the bag.
"What is it?"
"Nope," he said then looked up again, a modicum of concern in his eyes. "What are you worried about?"
"I'm not worried about anything."
He cocked his head to the side, just one corner of his mouth turning up as watched her watching him until she burst.
"I like you," she blurted out.
"I certainly hope so," he said. "I'd imagine you don't go around doing that thing you do on all fours using your tongue with people you dislike."
"Shut up," she gasped, looking over her shoulder but the store was empty.
"What are we doing?"
"I don't know. What do you want to do?" she asked, heart rate picking up, her eyes watching him.
"Hang on," he said, then shouted over his shoulder to the back.
A beautiful blonde woman emerged, a pencil stuck in her bun but she was casually dressed and pleasant-looking enough.
"What's up?" she asked Edward.
"I'm leaving for lunch, and Jasper's taking the garbage out back. Can you let him know?"
Bella was pretty sure she was about to be dumped.
"Sure. Everything alright?" the woman asked, her eyes slipping to Bella.
"This is Bella. Bella, Tanya. She keeps the books," he said, and then easy and smooth, he bounded right over the counter using only one foot.
"You go to the school?" Tanya asked, quite amused at the sight of the round-eyed brunette. Female students had been known to have a sudden passion for extreme sporting goods upon discovering Edward. He generally never paid them any mind at all.
"Yeah," Bella said, tucking her hair behind her ears. "I graduate in two weeks, though."
"Congratulations. You'll be all grown up."
"She already is," Edward said, then took Bella's hand.
Edward drove a hulking SUV with a ton of random racks attached to it for bikes, boards of all kinds and even a canoe. Most of Bella's friends didn't have cars and if they did, they were used four-door sedans.
"Did that bother you?" she asked, toying with the power lock on the passenger side door as he pulled out of the lot.
"The age thing. In general. Do you feel weird about being seen with me?"
"You act like Chris Hansen is around the corner waiting to pounce on me. Do I look that old?" he laughed.
"No," Bella said. "I'm just curious if it bugs you."
"You're twenty-one years old. If I thought for one second I was doing anything creepy, I wouldn't be doing it," he said. "I don't consider you a kid, or even really younger than me. My concern here isn't the actual age gap in terms of years."
"Oh," Bella said, noting that there was, indeed, a concern.
"You're smarter than me in a lot of ways," he said. "All environmental science degrees, and who reads War and Peace for fun?"
"Tolstoy is actually pretty funny," Bella said. "He's got a dry sense of humor—"
"Like that," Edward said, shaking his head as he turned a corner; Bella recognized this as the way to his house, where they'd been last week. "No one says things like, 'oh Tolstoy is hilarious.'"
"I didn't say that," she said, swatting his arm.
"You're smart. You're funny and kind of weird. You're gorgeous with firm tits, and you're into the same things I am," he continued, then pushed the button clipped to his visor to open the garage door. "Even without all of that, I think I'd still want you. I like you. A lot."
He parked the car and leaned back in his seat to look at Bella.
"Tell me of these concerns you have," Bella said. "I mean, we just established I'm perfect. I can't imagine a complaint."
He laughed and brought her inside, where he picked her up and plopped her on the island in the middle of his kitchen, next to the mail and a couple of empty beer bottles.
"Do you know what I did the year after I graduated college?" he asked, hands braced on either side of her thighs.
"Prostitutes and meth?"
"Close. I went to Switzerland—the trip was a gift from my parents—and boarded and skied and did drugs. This year, come the end of the school year, I'm going to take inventory, audit the stock, help Tanya go through last year's receipts and see if we can consider the expansion I want to make happen."
"Stop, you party animal."
"Exactly," he said, rather serious. "What I'm saying is, you didn't have a Switzerland yet. I did all of that, and now, this boring shit is my Switzerland, but I'm happy with that because it's time for me."
"Edward. I like you. A lot. But if someone ponies up a trip to Switzerland for me, I'm going to ask you for a ride to the airport and wish you luck with your receipts. I don't plan on giving things up just because I'm with you."
"Are you?" he asked, and for the first time she was seeing him pensive, almost shy-looking.
"Am I what?"
"Yeah. But the second you ask me to change your Depends—"
He grabbed hold of her thigh and squeezed, making her squirm and yelp.
"Say I am young and virile!" he demanded.
"You're old! You should subscribe to AARP and stock up on Metamucil!" she shrieked. Edward quickly swung her up with one arm and over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and she grabbed at his wide back, finding no skin to pinch; there was nothing slack on the man.
He tossed her on the bed and she splayed her arms and legs, laughing while he smiled and unbuckled his belt.
"This is what happens when I call you old?" she asked.
He nodded slowly.
"In that case, you are geriatric. I think I see a gray hair in there," she lied, pointing to his hair.
He grabbed her ankle and pulled her to the end of the bed. Edward reached back and pulled his shirt over his head.
"You're right," he said, "I'm no little boy."
Mid-day, Bella was lying on Alice and Rosalie's couch and staring at the television, ignoring the open text book on the coffee table in front of her, opting instead to curl into a ball and let mindless tears fall as she watched Maury Povich.
There was a thud at the door before it swung open and Bella jumped, scrambling up to see Edward standing there, a milk crate full of DVDs at his feet.
And she knew she looked like shit.
"Hey," he said, kicking the crate further in the door. "You're not in class."
"No," she said, curling in to the corner of the couch, careful with her words and her movements.
Which was crazy.
She'd lived with the guy.
She puked in front of him and shaved her legs in the shower with him standing there, rinsing shampoo from his hair. And now she couldn't meet his eyes.
"I didn't leave any movies."
"It's porn. Emmett's idea of help," Edward said with a soft smile. "I'm dropping it off to Rosalie, just to help him out right back."
"Look," he said, leaning in the doorway. "I'm sorry about the other day. I was an asshole."
"Yeah, so was I," Bella said, then rubbed her tired eyes. "You know, we don't have to do this. The beauty of this break up is we don't have to apologize anymore."
"I want to anyway," he said. "I don't want to be the one to have hurt you or made you cry. Ever."
She nodded, fresh tears, the inescapable frown pulling strong once she looked away.
"You doing okay?" Edward asked, not moving to come in.
"If I said I missed you, it wouldn't be a new development. I was always missing you. So."
Edward chewed on the corner of his lip for a moment, then sighed.
"It's different," Bella went on when he stayed silent. "I guess it's different because then you were still mine at least. But were you? Were we already dissolving?"
"Christ, Bella. I don't know what the hell happened," Edward shrugged. "Somewhere along the way it just...I don't know. I can't figure it out. But I miss you. And I love you. I don't think it makes a damn bit of difference, though."
"I've been trying to think about what I could've done or what you could've done, like a circle in my head," Bella said, laughing flatly, wiping at her eyes, "and I just don't know. We were just not ever going to work, were we?"
Edward put his hands in his pockets and rocked his shoulder blades on the wall.
"I don't know. I know I wanted it to work. It was the timing," he said, shaking his head, his brows pulled down. "It was just the wrong time for us. Thing is, you're it for me. In another time, you're it. But right now. Right where we're at right now..."
Bella wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, her shoulders shaking. She willed herself not to make howling noises because the cries that were creeping up were violent.
He crossed the room in six strides but Bella backed up while he stood over her. She just stared at his legs.
"You have to stay away from me," she said. "We're not going to be friends. We're not going to drag this out, okay? I can't."
"No, I know," he whispered, "Just…you know. Goodbye?"
Bella leaned forward, letting her face fall in to his stomach and felt his hands in her hair before he lowered himself, squatting in front of her.
It was Bella who kissed him.
"What are you doin' Bella?" he whispered before she touched her lips to his again.
"I don't know," she whispered. "Do you have any idea what it's like to love you? You're perfect. But it's like you don't even exist."
"I'm not perfect and the fact that I always disappoint you proves it," he said. "I hate that I do that to you. You deserve better, and I'm sorry."
"I do," Bella said.
He pulled away to put his hands on her face then kissed her salty, wet lips twice.
"I gotta go," he whispered.
Bella nodded, her face still between his hands, swallowing down words that would make him stay, but then she remembered what they were doing here.
"You take care of yourself, Bella."
"You too," she whispered as he let go and stood, turning his back. She watched him. It hurt, but she had to watch him walk out.
Edward stepped over the crate and paused, looking over his shoulder. His eyes were red; the corner of his mouth that lifted in a smile was turned down and Bella stared. She'd never once seen Edward cry.
"Hey. For whatever it's worth..."
"I know," she said. "Me too."
He closed the door softly behind him. There is something profoundly mournful and finite when a door closes but does not slam in anger, when the fight is gone and all that is left is resignation.
Bella got up with a sigh and heaved the heavy crate away from the door, and that was when she noticed that at the bottom, under all the nineties porn, was the waffle iron.
And that is when it came crashing down into her reality.
They were over.
That huge, epic, whole other half of her was gone. Past and passed.
Bella had been living at Edward's house for three months. She applied for grad programs and insisted on paying part of the utilities and mortgage; Edward only argued once. It was when they were considering her moving in after graduation; her apartment lease was up and frankly, it was senseless for her to sign another when she spent most nights at Edward's anyway. She was considering taking a year off and working at Board Things in the meantime, anyway.
"If you're going to be working for me, I'm essentially going to be cutting you a check, and you'll be giving it right back to me."
"I'm not going to be the post-grad girl living with her thirty-three-year-old boyfriend for free."
This took him by surprise. Edward turned from where he was hanging his clean laundry to look at Bella, who was searching under the bed for her tennis shoes.
"What?" she asked, blowing a piece of hair from her face.
"This is an age thing?"
"You don't want to appear to be the young girl being taken care of," he said. "You don't want people to think you're like….some sugar baby."
"Correction, I don't want to actually be some sugar baby," Bella said. "And it really has nothing to do with our age difference. I want to know that I can float myself, you know? And FYI, some months I might be short, so I am taking advantage of you a little bit. I know how much you like that."
For a little under a week, he considered taking her money and saving it up for her, starting a decent savings account because he knew that someday it could be a Godsend for her when student loans and life in general started to pile up.
But he wasn't completely stupid. She wanted the real world; he couldn't rob her of hardships just because he had the means to do so. He'd gone through it. Hell, most people did, and Bella wanted to know that she could, too. In the end, he used her money as she intended him to because saving it for her would've put her in the role of oblivious child—and he knew it.
Soon enough, she was fully ingratiated into his home and his life, making it not his, but theirs.
"Do we have a waffle iron?" Bella asked, her butt hanging out of an open cabinet while pots and pans banged around.
"Above the microwave," Edward said, watching her butt with rapt amusement. She looked nice in his shorts.
"Really?" she asked, pulling out of the cabinet. She looked up at Edward, "What the hell is a bachelor doing with a waffle iron?"
"My mom bought it," he said. "Why were you looking if you assumed I didn't have one?"
"You surprise the hell outta me sometimes," she said, getting to her feet. "I don't have mine because it was Alice's."
"You making waffles?" he asked, reaching for the iron. He lifted it, still in the box, from the high cabinet over Bella's head.
"Next Tuesday," she said, taking it from him. "This is still in the box."
"You're going to kick ass in grad school, you genius," he laughed.
She kicked at his knee and turned to set the iron down on the counter, preparing to un-box it.
"If you're making waffles on Tuesday—"
"I have to make sure I'm prepared. It's weird. It's a thing for me. Don't even," she said, holding up a hand and inspecting the iron.
"Okay," she said, opening it up and beaming at the brand new, non-stick griddle.
"Okay, you realize there is a box of much easier, much quicker Eggos in the freezer, right?"
"Okay, I have to know," Edward finally said when she'd plugged it in to make sure it worked.
"Okay, but don't go all sympathetic and weird on me, this isn't a sad thing. It's a happy thing."
"Waffles are always a happy occasion," he agreed.
"You know my mom was dead by the time I was four," she said. He nodded. "So don't go thinking this is like a grief thing. I don't even remember her."
"Okay, so according to my dad, every year on her birthday, my mom made and ate waffles from scratch at eight o'clock at night. No idea why that time, but she was precise about it. So every year on her birthday, I do that."
"Nope," she said. "I hear sympathy and sad in your voice. It's not like that. I just do it because someone ought to. I don't remember her, and I'm not even sure that I have any similarities to my mom at all. From pictures, I know I don't look anything like her, and everyone says she was my opposite, personality-wise. But I think there must be something—anyway. This is my way to be sure that we shared something, I guess."
He opened his mouth but she put a hand over it.
"Don't say another word about it."
She dropped her hand.
"It's a good idea."
"You're the worst with directions," she scoffed.
"Is this something you do alone, or…"
"No, I told you. I don't like, dress in all black and cry into the syrup. It's a happy thing. I used to eat them with my dad, and more recently Alice and Rose. I'd have them with champagne, but this year Rose has to work and Alice is visiting back home and no, you do not have to be here. It's totally not a big deal."
"Okay," he said simply.
He watched her carefully take stock of ingredients, watched when her hand hovered over the hot griddle to make sure she knew how to set the exact right temperature. It was totally a big deal.
Tuesday at work, Edward was slammed. The shop was generally busy; he had to have orders in for their next shipment by midnight, and there'd been a glitch with the computers concerning the inventory program and Emmett had—shockingly-called in.
After closing, Edward was swearing in front of the computer, standing over his chair and giving it one last useless click of the mouse before kicking the chair and grabbing his keys. He was already running late at twenty to eight, but if he drove with a heavy foot and avoided red lights, he'd make it.
"Fuck!" He slammed the palm of his hand on the steering wheel and yanked his keys out of the ignition when all he got were a few clicks. The fucking battery had died. He'd sent Jasper in his car to pick up lunch and Jasper hadn't shut the door right; the dome light stayed on and fuck everything.
Edward contemplated calling Jasper to get over there and pick him up, but by the time Jasper moseyed back, it'd be too late. He could've called Bella, but then she wouldn't be there making her waffles, and he wasn't about to fuck that up for her. Glancing at the time on his phone, his head pounding from the day, Edward saw he had fourteen minutes to run home. Doable. Just not desirable. But then, he was certain he'd walk through fire for Bella.
And so, he ran.
The door opened at 7:57 as Bella was setting a plate on the table. The timer on the waffle iron was beeping as she looked up at Edward, who was breathing heavily in the doorway, his cheeks pink, sweat around his temples. Bella glanced at the clock then back at Edward, trying to not smile the smile she felt in her chest.
"Hi," she said. "Are you ok?"
"Yep," he answered between pants. He went to the kitchen where he lifted the lid on the iron while Bella used a fork to remove the batch. He gathered the syrup and she got down glasses, both of them working around each other in silence.
"Are you going to tell me why you look like you just climbed Mt. Everest?" Bella asked as she poured more batter into the iron.
"My car battery died," he said, inspecting the batter over her shoulder. "Do you ever put blueberries in there?"
"No. What do you mean, it died?"
"Jasper left the dome light on. I think the program at work has a virus, and I don't think we'll have any boot liners for next month. I might be a little out of shape," he said.
"Did you run home?" Bella asked, turning around and staring up at him.
"The battery was dead."
"You could have called me! Or anyone!"
"Bella. Come on," he said, gesturing to the waffles on the counter.
"Did you run all the way home to be here by eight?" she asked, taking a step back.
"Of course I did," he said. "I know you act like it's not—"
"But it is," she blurted, pulling on his shirt, burying her face in it then wrapping her arms around him so tightly her muscles ached.
She cried with her face pushed into his chest, the kind of tears that make your body convulse and produce painful hiccups; she wasn't sad, just completely surprised and loved.
"The waffles are going to burn," Edward said into the top of her head.
"I don't care."
"I just ran all the way back here. We're not having burnt waffles."
"Okay," she sniffed, pulling away. "You're right. Okay."
She patted her hair and returned to the iron, like that hadn't happened at all.
"Now I use syrup, but I know some people use fruit or whipped cream. The topping doesn't matter all that much. I have strawberries—"
"I'll have whatever you do," he told her.
"Okay," Bella said, smiling into the steam of the iron. She felt him behind her, the heat of him on her back.
"You were surprised I'd do that," he commented.
"Kind of. I know you're busy—"
He reached over her and flipped the lid of the iron up so Bella turned around and looked up at him with red, wet eyes.
"You know I'm busy," he said. "But you also know I love you, right?"
She looked him in the eye and quickly looked away, back again, then away again before he caught her chin.
"Bella. You knew that, right?"
"You never said it," she shrugged. Truthfully, even the decision to move in with Edward was made very pragmatically and they mostly discussed the fiscal pros and cons of the entire thing. He'd never said it so she'd never said it, though she was positive she felt it.
"I haven't? I think it all day long," he said. "I love you."
"I love you, too. But you really shouldn't be running like that, you could have a heart attack. I don't think old people are supposed to be—" she cut off with a squawk when he lifted her to the counter.
After the break up, Bella would contemplate if that night—one of the best nights of her life—wasn't actually a big, red flag being waved in warning of heartbreak. She was always hesitant to tell him what she needed, and he always assumed she knew where he was coming from. But God, he tried, and when he got it right, he got it so right. His trying was all Bella ever needed. Problem was, at some point since the waffles, he'd stopped trying.
The week after their last goodbye, Bella had gotten good and drunk in front of the television, thoroughly convincing herself that if she wanted complete closure, she had to drunk dial Edward. No break up was complete without the drunk dial, so she figured it was inevitable. Drinking put her emotions on steroids, so if she was missing him before, she was basically dying now. Neither Alice nor Rose were around to stop her and so at 1:52 a.m., Bella called Edward.
It took five rings, but he answered.
"Are you okay?" he asked in that breathless, disoriented and rushed way. She knew exactly what he looked like in that moment; he was on his stomach, shirt off, shorts on, blankets kicked to her former side. He was propped on one elbow on the mattress, head bowed with the phone to his ear, one eye closed, hair a riotous mess.
"Oh. Hey," she said, stretching out the 'hey', now not entirely sure what to say but feeling pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
"What're you doing?"
His initial answer was silence and a shifting of the sheets.
"Sleeping. Are you drunk?"
"So? Listen, we can't even be broken up without proper protocol, like the drunk dial. So I'm taking care of that."
"How big of you," he said with a tired laugh.
"I know. I'm fucking mature. You should have a drink."
"You should go to sleep."
"You can't tell me what to do," she grinned. "But remember when you did?"
"Not like that. I meant during sex."
"Hah," he said, "Yeah. I remember."
"I miss sex."
"Yeah, no shit."
"Ugh, don't say that. I don't want to know you're missing sex," Bella said. "I haven't even thought of you with someone else. Next time you get laid it won't be- Oh, God."
"Bella, I haven't even thought of that. I'm—"
"Oh God. I'm going to puke. Please stay celibate for forever."
Just when she thought she was going to cry, she began to laugh.
"Maybe you should just take to jacking off on my old side of the bed. I can't deal with you with anyone else."
"I already do that." He laughed his sleepy laugh into the phone.
"You do not."
"Swear to God, I do. I just did it like, three hours ago."
"Did you sniff my pillow and use your tears for lube?" she asked.
"Yeah, then I cleaned up and got back to work on the shrine I'm building with strands of your ever-shedding hair and nail clippings."
"Lies. I don't shed hair. That's yours. It was always your hair clogging the drain. I think you're starting to go bald."
"My hair isn't a foot and a half long. It's Bella hair. And I'm still finding it everywhere."
"Shut up and love it. Reminders of how fucking lucky you used to be," she smiled.
"I know it."
"Don't be sweet to me right now."
"When do we get to schedule break up sex? We have to do that, too, you know."
He groaned into the phone.
"Just so you know, I've already started," she said.
"You know what it's like to have to ride my own fingers and pretend it's you?"
"You're really going to be mad at yourself tomorrow."
"No I won't. I'm saying things I want to say."
And then she told him every filthy fantasy, all revolving around Edward, both of them pausing to laugh here and there, or to work in silent tandem with soft sounds and noises they both knew very, very well.
It's always sobering once you get off. Bella was left in acute loneliness, worse than she had been before. This was the right-after period where he would get up and walk his bare ass to the kitchen to grab her some water. Then she would find a way to put her feet on him or hold his wrist or fingers under the sheet while they drifted off to sleep. But now all they were was alone and messy.
"You okay?" he asked after a full two minutes of silence.
"You were right. That was a bad idea," she said with a sad chuckle. "But now it's all out of the way. Drunk dial and break up sex. So."
"I don't know if it will ever feel done, you know?" he asked. "It's not like we just fell out of love or something."
"I know. What's really pathetic is you're my best friend. You're the only one I want to cry to about my terrible break up." Bella laughed softly, "And then sometimes, like tonight? We talk and we laugh and we are so right together I forget why I'm not there right now."
"I forget," he said. "I'll be busy at work and come home and all your shit is gone and you're not here and I think, 'oh. That's why it was an okay day. I forgot she was gone.'"
"You forget?" Bella asked, her head starting to hurt from the booze.
"Not like that. Just…I get wrapped up in work to take my mind off of it, and there it is when I get home-"
"I wish I could forget you sometimes," she snapped.
"I didn't mean it like that—"
"Yes, you did. And now I'm remembering why I'm not in our bed right now. You always could just blow me off."
"I could always do what needed to be done—"
"I'm going to Colorado on Wednesday for a week. There's this small business convention—"
"Shocking. Why are you telling me this?"
"So it's easier for you to hate me."
"That's stupid. I can't hate you. Ever."
"Well. I love you even when I'm at work or in fucking Colorado. But I can't be the only thing in your—"
"Shut up. It was never like that, and you're not going to try to make it out to be that way. I went and did stuff on my own. I was plenty independent from you."
"You were always the most important thing to me, Bella."
"But I needed to see. It. To feel it. From you. But you can't or won't-hey, answer me something."
"What would have happened if I'd have gotten pregnant?"
It went dead on his end for thirty solid seconds.
"Bella, are you?"
"No. But we never really talked about that."
"Because you have an IUD. Do we really have to discuss this, now that it's kind of pointless?"
"Humor me. I'm heartbroken."
"So am I."
"I don't know. I guess it'd be up to you."
"But what would you want?"
"Jesus, it's two-thirty in the morning. I can't think hypothetically right now. I'd want whatever you'd want."
"Pah," she scoffed. "Let's say I wanted to keep it. Would it have kept you less busy?"
The second the drunken words were out of her mouth, Bella saw it all with clarity. She was trying to come up with things that would have made him more hers. And that, God, that put it all in crystal-clear perspective.
"Made me less busy?" he repeated in what sounded to Bella like sad shock. "Bella."
"You never once made any real effort to factor me into your life. I just accepted that, and that is where I went so wrong with you. Right from the start, I should have told you what I needed, but I thought 'oh, he's older with responsibilities, I won't be a young, obnoxious nag,' but you know what? It's got nothing to do with our age difference. I was always so afraid of coming off too young or insecure that I never stood up and said I need to be more important to you in a way that I can see it. So yeah, we have great banter and great sex, but me and you? We need different things."
"Didn't I say that?" he asked, mad now. Mad at her and mad at himself because from the get-go, he knew this would happen. He always knew that if it was going to end, it'd be just like this. But she never had that foresight and somehow, he believed her when she insisted it would work.
"It's not about the age difference, Edward. It never was."
Eighteen months into their relationship, Edward was surprised to find Bella not only awake, but still dressed and waiting for him by the front door when he got home at ten o'clock.
"Hey," he said, dropping his keys on the table, smiling, happy to see her after such a long day. He'd gotten a final set of blueprints for the expansion that actually looked like they'd be both decent and affordable.
"Oh, hey bro," Bella said, crossing her arms, not leaning into the kiss he was trying to give. "Emmett told me a pretty funny story today."
"Oh yeah?" Edward laughed.
"Yeah. Arrested for public intox when you were twenty-two, huh?"
"That'd be me," Edward said. "Are you seriously upset about that?"
"No, that was the funny part. You wanna know what wasn't funny?"
"It was the part when he said, 'it was years back when Edward was still with Tanya.'"
"If you knew what a joke that whole thing was, you'd think it was funny, too," he said, but his smile dropped when Bella's eyes turned to fire and brimstone. "Are you kidding me? It was over a decade ago."
"I don't care that you were ever with her," Bella said, "I care that you never mentioned it."
"Why would I mention it? Like I said, it was—"
"A decade ago. I heard ya. The problem is, I see her regularly. She's been here for dinner!" Bella shouted. "She has had sex with you, probably in that same bed, and I'm the only idiot in the room who was unaware! All those times I sat there and served her wine, and she knows what your cock looks like! Oh my god, it all makes sense now. Her snide little comments about my age—"
"What would the difference be if you knew beforehand?" he asked, completely confused and more than a little irritated.
"Let's say you were sitting across from a guy who used to rail me on the regular."
"Trust me, I'd rather not know."
"Yeah, well, how would you feel if you found out afterward? You'd feel like a complete jackass. You'd go over every time you were in the room with him and re-evaluate every interaction-"
"I wouldn't because I'm not a lunatic."
"Grow up," he said, waving a dismissing hand toward her as he walked by.
"I'm twenty-two years old!" she roared. "Sorry, this bugs me. I'm not cool or sophisticated enough to be comfortable with the ghosts of your sex-past sitting on my couch while I smile like an oblivious moron and serve them chicken! You should have told me! I wouldn't have cared if you had just told me!"
"I didn't even think of it!" he shouted back. "It's not something that's on my mind—ever. I was a twenty-two-year-old kid, how serious could it have been?!"
The air sucked out of the room as Bella's face went from livid to fucking livid and Edward slowly closed his eyes, holding a hand up.
"Oh yes you did," she said, pointing one finger at him and grabbing her jacket with the other hand.
"Bella, just wait."
"Edward, fuck you."
"Oh come on—"
"You're so old and mature and blah blah blah," she ranted, jamming one arm in the sleeve of her coat. "And I'm a child who can't possibly be taken seriously or take anything seriously—"
"I didn't say that."
"It's obvious you think it!"
"No, I don't!" he shouted back, his voice getting hoarse and she was only getting angrier.
"I was twenty-two how, serious could it have been?" Bella repeated in a low mocking voice before walking out, slamming the door behind her.
He gave her a half hour to cool off before he called. She didn't answer. Then he texted three times. No response, not to the eleven other calls he gave her before he finally threw his phone against the wall.
It was two o'clock in the morning when she did come back, her key jiggling in the lock and loud voices shushing and laughing from the porch. Edward swung the door open to see Bella, drunk and standing there with some college boy, her key mid-air.
"Oh. Hello," she said, slightly swaying. The guy laughed and gave a wave to Edward. "Edward, this is Jake. I've known him since freshman year." She hiccupped then swallowed, raising her eyebrows to try to appear very serious and sober. "He was a gentleman and wanted to make sure I arrived home. Also, I never slept with him. See how easy that was to put that out there?"
She stumbled into the door and Edward looked at Jacob, more twenty than thirty with a cocksure grin and his hands in the air.
"I'm just getting her home, man," he said, but he and Bella both burst into giggles and Edward was just about to burst. A car horn honked from the street and Edward shut the door in Jacob's face.
"That was fucking rude," Bella said, flopping on to the couch.
"What the hell was that?" Edward asked, not coming any closer to her.
"A friend. That I never slept with."
"I didn't tell you about a woman I slept with a decade ago and so you go out, drink and bring some frat boy back here? To our home?"
"Yes, I did."
"No," he said plainly. "I'm not doing this. I'm not arguing with you that way. If that's how you play, pack your shit and call him back to come get you. You do not want to push me into jealousy, baby. It won't be nice or fun, and you won't accomplish whatever it is you're after."
"You hurt me!" she shouted, abrupt and with a swift loss of whatever false cool she had. "That fucking hurt!"
"So you hurt me back? You didn't even listen to what I had to say!"
"Because it's obvious! You think I'm some young little joke—"
"You think that so you just," he cut off and drew a shuddering breath. "Bella. Do you think for one second that it's not painfully obvious to me that you are a gorgeous girl who can go out and have any young prick you want? Some guy who can be young and twenty-three with you? I know that. I am always acutely aware of that, I don't need it standing on my front porch!"
"You think that?" she asked.
"Of course I think that. Look at you. You're young and beautiful and smart, and you have the world in front of you. You're not chained to a job or a career like I am. You can go off and have your fun with some guy who is in the same position. I'm older, but there are younger guys who can give you things I can't."
"You're so together and secure all the time—Edward. I don't want to do those things with another guy. I just…I wanted to hurt you back. And I'm sorry. You've had this life, and I know that and it's fine but…God. I wish I would have known about her."
"I'm sorry. You're right. You should have known."
"Yeah. I should have said it but I really didn't even think it and…Bella. You at twenty-two are not who I was. I don't think you're a joke or—if I didn't take you seriously, we wouldn't be living together. I'm in love with you in a very serious way. Do you really think I'd be doing this with you if I thought you were a silly kid?"
"No. I just…freaked out. I love you, you know? I want to know you regard me how I do you. I'm young, but I think you're love of my life and all that."
He came and sat on the couch next to her, elbows on his knees, talking toward the floor.
"You're young, Bella. That doesn't mean you're not serious, and it doesn't mean I don't take you seriously. It's just fact you're much younger than me. When you say things like that, I want to believe you. I'm thirty-three years old. I'm not looking to not be settled down, I'm with you because I want this for conceivably forever. But I'm scared shitless, because you could just grow out of this or want different things. You're still in school, anything could happen with your life—"
"You're talking like you're eighty. You're not that old. And Edward, what you said is just not fair. You could want different things, too. You could decide you're better suited with someone your age. You could decide to pack up and move to Alaska or California—"
"I know my life."
"I know mine, and you're it. You can't take credit away from me just for being younger than you."
"Say it again, let me bask in it," Bella said, flopping back on the couch, arms wide open.
He tossed a throw pillow on her face and she tossed it back.
"Take me to bed and show me what younger guys can't do."
He'd sent her a card when she received her Masters degree; she texted him on his birthday to which he responded with a "thank you." Emmett said he was doing well, but Bella never asked. Time goes on. Bella could depend on that as a constant truth.
Nine months passed and Bella found that she missed Edward. She loved Edward. But she was no longer waiting on him. And so, she supposed, her problem had been solved. She'd been tired of waiting on Edward, and now she no longer was. But this led to a bigger problem.
She was not over him. She was still in love with a guy who wasn't there, and while everyone says it takes time, by now, Bella thought her feelings would've dulled or faded, but that's how things go with the love of your entire life. You can't stop loving them if you're still living. You smile, you apply for jobs and sign leases and meet with your friends, but you still love.
Most days it was fine, but one time she pulled an old sweater out of a box when she unpacked her new place and it smelled so vividly like Edward her heart thumped like he was standing in the room right next to her. She put it on and closed the curtains and cried for the first time in months.
There was the time she ran into her old friend Jessica, who invited Bella and Edward to her housewarming party. Bella beamed and lied and said they wouldn't be able to make it. She had a ten minute long conversation with Jessica, the whole time pretending she was still with Edward, knowing that was crazy but loving the chance to step back into her old world. She never corrected Jessica because in a weird way, it was nice to know that somewhere out there, someone was still walking around thinking of her and Edward still together. Besides, she was never that wild about Jessica.
At the end of a long day of job interviews, Bella came home to her own single apartment, poured a glass of wine and went through her mail. She paused at a large square envelope, her name and her name only scrawled beautifully on the front. The paper was cream-colored and heavy; for one horrifying moment she had visions of a wedding invitation but tore the paper open before that nightmare could get any worse.
It wasn't a wedding invitation, but it was an invitation. To the Grand Re-Opening of Board Things. She stared at the invite and many things happened at once; disbelief- did he seriously send this with the belief she'd show up? Bitterness— was he fucking kidding? As if she wanted to go celebrate the culmination of what she very much considered a huge factor in ruining their relationship? Suspicion— was this a pity invite that he felt he couldn't get out of? And hope— did he want to see her?
Bella put the invite down on the table and slowly backed away from it as if it were a motion-sensitive bomb. Thank God there was no RSVP prompt as this was an open house type of thing, so there was no pressure to decide until the day of. She walked by the invite for weeks, glancing at it, then pretending she hadn't, then picking it up and re-reading it like she may have missed a hidden message or something. Alas, she never learned anything she didn't already know. The place had tripled in size, they were now going to offer various classes, everything would be twenty percent off the first week after re-opening, and all of it sounded like a helluva lot more work than even before.
She wasn't going.
Until it was four-thirty in the afternoon the evening of and she lay on her bed, staring at the invite with nothing else to do and had a righteous thought: she had sacrificed for this momentous day, too. Why the hell shouldn't she go and drink a couple of glasses of champagne on the Cullen dime, dammit? Emmett and Rose would be there. And dammit, she wanted to see Edward. At that thought, the thought of seeing him, her stomach churned and jolted in a way it hadn't in far too long, and then she was milling through her closet.
She found something short, black and previously known as 'Oh my God, that fucking dress, baby.' She almost balked at how obvious it was but on the other hand, whatever. Loving him, wanting him, turning him on were never things she'd been subtle about.
Bella arrived forty-five minutes late, kind of on purpose and kind of due to her constant hesitating and nerves. She'd been avoiding Edward's end of town for a long time now; the last time she saw Board Things it was mid-construction and a mess. Now it was huge, looming, sleek, and took up a quarter of the block. From across the street in front of a row of shops, Bella looked up at it. She should have wanted to burn the place down to the ground but she found herself smiling, hot tears surprisingly pricking her lids.
He did it.
She never had a doubt; he was courageous and ambitious and smart, but still. To see it, to see his dream this way unexpectedly made Bella proud of Edward, and she hoped that someone had stopped to tell him so. That he should be proud.
She took a breath, skipped in her heels across the street and went into the din. It was a combination of swank and cool, investors and boarders, champagne and bottled beer, lacquered floors and insane light fixtures on a warehouse-type ceiling—it was gorgeous and tri-level and a fucking empire. She saw it the way he'd talked about it- only she didn't see herself there like she once had.
Edward saw her, her round eyes taking it all in and shining. Her smile was wistful and true and Edward, with absolutely no modicum of tact, excused himself from his current conversation. His hands shook in his pockets and he couldn't have stopped walking toward her if he wanted to.
She was still, watching a ghost come toward her, her expression frozen, not the type of cool she had planned to pull off.
"You came," he greeted.
"I knew it was the obligatory pity invite," she said, eyes narrowed at him. "Sorry to disappoint. I showed."
Edward laughed and Bella grinned, turning her head away to pretend she was people-watching. She assumed this was supposed to feel like special nostalgia and they were to give genuine knowing smiles about how they had something special long ago and now things were okay, but history is always nice. But it wasn't that way at all. This was just a painful reminder that she was still very much in the middle of a huge love, and there was no end in sight.
"I wanted you," he said and she watched color bloom in his cheeks as the words hung between them. In her years with Edward, she very rarely heard him trip on his own words because of nerves. "To come. Shit. Sorry."
"Am I making you nervous?" Bella asked.
"Good, I'm dying," she said with a dramatic whisper and wide eyes. "It's weird, right?"
"It's weird in that it's not weird," he said.
"Okay, now it's weird. I should…not be here. Bye."
She turned on her heel and booked it before she kissed him or cried, fully aware she just came off insane, but whatever, he knew. He knew her. He knew what that was about. Which is probably why he followed her through the crowd, trying to catch her hand or her eye but Bella dodged and swerved until she reached the door, but his arms were longer and swung open in front of her, his large palm above her head, shoving it open.
The door closed and they were in the quiet on the sidewalk in the dark but lit up like candle light from the humongous awning that now hung out in front.
His hands went back into his pockets and Bella took a few steps back, staring up at his hard work.
"It's good," she said reluctantly. "I mean it. It's amazing."
"Thanks," he said, glancing up at the place, then away. "It is. That's the bitch of it. It's amazing, and it's also not worth it."
"Please shut up," Bella breathed, her throat going dry.
"I'm selling it to Newton's Sporting Goods," he said, staring up at it again. "It'll stay Board Things, but it'll be under their corporation—"
"No!" Bella bleated, her face contorted in confused desperation. "You can't do that!"
"I don't want it," he said, making it that fucking simple.
"You don't. Want. It?" she asked, her voice rising.
"I've got all kinds of things I don't want now. Like too much time and too much room and—"
"You don't want it?"
"Can you please not yell that out? It's a tentative thing, and I'd rather not have it be—"
"What do you mean you don't want it? This is why I'm miserable! This was the thing I was tossed over for constantly, and now you don't want it?"
"I'm going to manage the place, teach a few classes, use the profit to pay off the massive loans I owe on it-"
"I didn't ask what you were going to do," she snapped. "Why are you telling me this, and why are you finding this out now? No. I gave up too much for this. You're not selling this place."
He let a hand slide down his tired face and gave her a weak smile.
"Am I why?" she whispered.
"No. Yes. The whole thing was a catalyst. After we broke up I would come in here and work, and there was progress. I kept thinking once it's done, I'll see it was worth it, but I never did and I'm not going to. And a couple of months ago I was here when they were close to finishing and I was thinking…now what? Now I'll have this, and so what? It's just the same thing every day and I love the place and the work but…not for a whole life. And this kind of place needs that kind of commitment."
"You're not doing this because of me."
"No. But someday, I want to have something great again, and it won't happen if I don't change things. You know how you always hear that you're supposed to learn something from relationships and break-ups and all that? Well. You were a big one and I learned a big lesson, I guess."
"I left you lonely and alone when you needed more from me. I told myself it was just responsibility and the age thing, but it wasn't."
"But not for me?"
"Okay, I admit," he said, swallowing then smiling. "When Newton's first approached me, I used to have this ridiculous daydream where I'd sell it and like, come running back to you with this huge declaration and you'd take me back and…I don't know."
"You're scaring me," Bella said, stepping away from him and toward the street. "You can't talk about everything I've ever wanted. You can't suddenly see everything I needed you to see—"
"Wait," he said, putting his hands out, keeping his distance like she was an animal who would spook and run at any second.
"I can't wait on you anymore," Bella said, her voice breaking. "Okay?"
"Just," he flinched, his eyes squeezing closed. "Please, just listen. You don't have to, and God knows I'm not owed one more second, but please, listen anyway."
Bella nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
"You once joked that you liked me, but wouldn't miss opportunity for me. And I wouldn't have expected you to, but it rooted in my mind. I don't think I was realizing I was doing it, but I was putting you second, holding you off because I was sure you were going to look at me one day and think that you'd wasted your youth on me. I thought you'd see you missed something, and so I used this place thinking that at least I'll have this when you're gone, thinking I'll invest more here and less on you. That is the mistake of my life. I didn't give you the credit you deserved and I am sorry. I'm sorry I did that to both of us."
"You always only gave a part. Never all," she said, pointing at him, her voice venomous. "You're right, I deserved better. I put my entire everything into you. And you let me just dangle out there. You got all of me and all of this and Edward," she shook her head, turning away. "You still have it all and sometimes, I swear, I hate you for it."
"I figured you'd say that," he said.
"Good, because I do," she said, crossing the street.
"No you don't!" he shouted after her.
"Oh, yes I do!"
"What?" she shouted, turning around from across the street.
"I can fix it," he said, his eyes on her, his voice completely steady and true. There was a promise in it.
"You can't say that to me. You can't even know that! You say things like that, but if you can't—"
"How do you know?"
"I want it."
"Right. So now it's time. What if I don't want it?" she asked. "What if I'm just over it and done with you?"
He let out a slow laugh that she couldn't hear but could see, just barely, because she was partially blinded by rage.
"Then I guess I lose everything," he said, his arms now spread wide.
"I guess you do," she said, walking away.
Over the course of the next month, Bella wasn't sure if he made the time or if he simply had the time but whatever the case, he must've had a lot of it because he texted a lot and called a lot and didn't leave her alone in general, which would have been terrible if she wasn't enjoying the hell out of it. And damn it all if he wasn't enjoying being toyed with, just because it was her. They stayed up late talking about nothing and occasionally everything, sometimes in that heavy serious way, or sometimes actually making fun of what went so wrong.
He sent pathetic selfies of himself, in bed, frowning at her empty side to which she responded with a picture of her hand near a bottle of Lubriderm. He sent his table setting of one and she sent one of herself eating tacos happily with a thumbs up.
He was the first person she called when she was hired and had a start date six weeks from the call. Then she called again the next day.
"I never got my Switzerland," Bella greeted when Edward answered his phone late one night. "I want to go before I start my real job."
"I want to go and I want you to pay for it. Because I can't and because basically, you owe me."
"Okay," he laughed. "You really want me to? Because I will."
"Yes. And I want you to come with me. Next week."
"Bella, I can't go to Switzerland next week, I'm signing with Newtons—oh. You're good. And mean."
She grinned into the phone, enjoying his little predicament, staying silent until he spoke.
"Wait, seriously?" she asked, scrambling to sit up.
"No!" she said, "God, I'm not insane or stupid. I don't want to mess your entire life up."
"Losing you again would be messing my entire life up. This would just be shitty and require re-scheduling. Priorities, B."
"You just implied you have me again."
"Eventually. I'm a patient man."
"You don't really have to go to Switzerland."
"Thank god. But I will. And I think you should."
"Were you always this sweet?"
"I always intended to be."
"You know what they say…"
"Yeah, I paved that road straight to hell."
"What is it, exactly, that you want?"
"You always wanted me, I always wanted you. Give me more than that. In a perfect world, what do you want?"
"I want to go back to the day I met you and do it all over again, but do it right. I want to go back and give of me the way you gave to me, with complete faith in what we were. That was always your advantage of being younger. You had faith while I was jaded. I love that about you and I should have trusted it, too. I want to go back to what we were, all the great parts and not be scared of them. I want then."
"I can't make that happen."
"But we have now."
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