You hear it the moment you walk in the door, the raucous laughter of Brittany and Eloise. In the entryway, you slip off your shoes and your jacket, and you hurry up the stairs, excited to get to them. It's been a long day at work for you. After your morning show, you'd been in meetings all afternoon, and you're completely exhausted. You know you won't sleep, not for awhile, it's date night tonight, after all, and you can't curl up and nap with Brittany in the afternoons anymore, not like you used to, but still, you're glad to be home with them. You're glad to have the rest of the afternoon with your two favorite people in the whole world.
Eloise is three now. You'd celebrated the day last month, with your mom, with Jonas and his now-wife Allie, and their six-month-old son, with a few of the families from Eloise's preschool at the Pennsylvania School For the Deaf. And at the end of the summer, you'll celebrate her second special day, her Forever Day, the anniversary of the day you'd held her in your arms in the courtroom, and you'd been handed her new birth certificate. Eloise Susan Lopez. Since Brittany had taken your last name, you'd wanted your daughter to have something that had been part of her for her entire life too, and she'd looked at you, the universe sparkling in her eyes, before nodding a quiet agreement to your suggestion. Eloise is three now, and every moment you've had with her is more amazing than the last. She's vibrant and full of life, life that she expresses in lightening quick hand motions, and kisses all over your face. She's a lot like Brittany, you think, and not because she's deaf. She's a lot like Brittany, because she feels things, bigger than most people, and it took her a little time before she found the way to best express them, but now that she can, to feel her love, it makes you so wholly lucky,
You open the baby gate at the top of the stairs, and you find Brittany, crouched over Baby E, tickling her sides. Close to her chest, Eloise, with her black curls, clutches her stuffed monkey, a relic from her first trip to Disney World, the second part of the third birthday celebration, and a belated wedding anniversary for you and Brittany, a place she'd been enchanted with, much to your delight, even at her young age. She clutches him close, Abu, and she laughs, she laughs so big it fills the whole room with the sound. Her laugh, it's the most amazing thing in the world to you. It tells you that you're doing things right. It tells you that your beautiful baby girl is happy, she's safe, she's understood and she is loved, unconditionally. So you watch them, you watch them for a long while. Otis from where he lies in his bed in the corner, getting old and tired, lifts up his head to acknowledge your presence, and somehow, in his eyes, you know he knows it too, how special and wonderful your two girls are. Your wife and your daughter, your life, more, even, than you ever dreamed of.
On the table, Eloise's hearing aids lie. She hates them, she truly does. Even after a few months of adjusting, she talks about them, mostly, using the signs for itchy and for busy and for bad. She hates them, and that's okay. You and Brittany have discussed it at length, and if she doesn't want to wear them, you're not going to force them. Once upon a time, Brittany would have wished for them for herself, once upon a time, Brittany wouldn't have understood why Eloise wouldn't want to wear them. But now she understands that her own deafness doesn't make her imperfect, nor does Eloise's, it just makes them perfect in an entirely different way. Once upon a time, you would have thought your daughter hearing your voice was the most important thing you could ever have, once upon a time you would have thought that singing her to sleep would be a way you bonded with her. But now, now you know that Eloise doesn't need to hear you to know your voice— though she can, muffled, when she has her hearing aids in, her face, screwing up in fascination, the first time she had, not realizing what it was that happened when you move your lips. She doesn't need to hear your voice, because she sees it, in the pull of your smile, she feels it, in buzz of your throat when you hug her close, in the whisper of your breath on baby soft skin.
Little mommy. Eloise sees you, and she wriggles out from Brittany's grasp, toddling toward you. You'd worried about how she'd differentiate the two of you, linguistically, since there's only one word in sign for who you both are to her. But Baby E, your smart-as-a-whip little thing, she'd figured it out for herself, and it couldn't be more right. You're home.
Here I am. You sign back, before you lift her into your arms, and you squeeze her tight.
Big mommy tickles. She tells you, laughing again, just seeing Brittany's mischievous eyebrow. A lot.
She did? Can I tickle her?
No. No. You kiss big mommy. Eloise shakes her little head, and she slips from your tight embrace.We miss you.
I missed you too, sugar baby.
"How about me?' Brittany smiles at you, pushing herself up from her crouched position, and filling Eloise's vacant place in your arms.
"Always, Sweetheart." You smile back, signing the word always as you speak it, your favorite word, forever your favorite word to sign. She kisses your lips, and you sigh against them. You know what the day is, and so does she, but your celebrating, it'll wait until later.
Kiss kiss me, little mommy. Eloise taps the heel of her foot on the floor to get your attention, repeating the gesture of bringing her flattened O from her lips to her other hand twice, for emphasis, as she often does when she wants something. Kiss kiss me.
You? You raise your eyebrows in question, and she nods vigorously, black curls bouncing where they fall to her shoulders, growing longer every day. Okay.
I love you. She stands on her tip toes and purses her lips, very, very into being a big girl lately, something that makes you so incredibly proud, and just a little heartbroken at how fast she grows all at once.
I love you. You sign back, kneeling down before her, kissing all over her tiny face, and starting up her laughter again.
You play with her on the floor, you and Brittany both. Your wife has some work to do—another book, her visions growing more and more vivid with a child of her own, enough so that you've told her, more than once, that you think if she wanted to, she could write her own stories, too— but she's decided, she can put it off for today. Tomorrow, she'll set up Eloise's easel beside hers, and your daughter will paint her letters— her newest learned skill— and Brittany will paint her imaginary world, more woodland creatures and tall, tall trees. You'll watch them, Otis lying with his head in your lap, and you'll smile, because it's one of the most perfect sights you've ever seen. But today, today, she'll take a break. Today, today, she'll savor each moment with you and Eloise, because right now, that's more important than anything.
For a little while, Eloise falls asleep in Otis' bed. She does it sometimes, curling up at his side to pet his greying head, and then succumbing to exhaustion herself, while he watches her closely, before falling asleep along with her. You and Brittany are okay with that, and Otis has no complaints either. He's been like a guardian to her since the very first day you brought her home from the hospital, and now, now sharing his space with her, her little hands grasping his neck, and hugging him close, it's as comfortable to him as breathing. They love each other, and it makes your heart throb— and Brittany's more, you think— watching your wife's trusted old friend, and your little girl snore together in the corner of your living room.
While they sleep, you curl into Brittany's side on the couch. It's been a long day, and you just want a few moments of rest, before you begin your evening plans. She's good, so good to you, stroking your hair, kissing the side of your face, just holding you close, letting you listen to her heartbeat. It's a quiet life you live, even with your very active three-year-old, but even still, you appreciate these quietest of moments. Moments where you don't need words, spoken or signed. Moments, where you hear it all in the thump, thump, thump of your beautiful wife's heart, in the soft snores of a big, old Vizsla, in the snuffles of your precious baby girl. They don't last long, but each and every one, you hold close to your heart. You know, you know, that this little family of yours, it's your most precious thing of all.
Too soon, it's time to get up. But your mom's train gets in at five-forty-eight, and you'd promised Eloise that you'd all go in the car together to pick her up. She loves the train station, the vibration of the arriving engines beneath her feet, the bright lights, and especially, the way her grandma always lifts her up in her arms, spinning her around on the platform, and often crying at how big she grows, and how fast. Brittany goes to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, and you lie down on your stomach, brushing Eloise's hair out of her eyes, and kissing her forehead. You know, better than almost anyone, that you have to wake her gently, that she turns into a tiny bear cub if you don't, and as her dark lashes blink open, the scowl appears immediately on her face.
Sleep now. Her pudgy toddler hand makes the words. No wake up little mommy.
Train station, baby. Grandma is coming. It's time to wake up now.
Grandma. She thinks on that, starfish fingers splayed out in front of her chin. Okay.
From where she lies, Eloise wiggles her way toward you, tucking her face into your neck. You sit up with her in your arms, holding her close and rocking her a little. Since she was born, she's needed her slow wake up, to be cuddled and kissed, to have her hair played with and her skin stroked. And you're always happy to oblige. You love that she craves the closeness with you, you love it so much, especially because your biggest fear when you'd brought her home was that you'd struggle communicating with her. But you never have, your tiny baby daughter, she'd understood your love for her right away, and even now, when you can speak to her in sign, hugs and kisses and the sound of your heartbeat, they still convey your love for her louder than any word language ever could.
Brittany comes back into the living room with two mugs, handles clasped in one hand, and Eloise's milk in the other. She sets them down on the coffee table, then kneels down beside you. She kisses the top of your daughter's head, and you hear it, the way she breathes her in, too, the camomile and calendula baby wash for her sensitive skin tickling Brittany's nose. When Eloise lifts her head from your neck, simply to rub her nose with Brittany's, you get butterflies. You always do, watching them interact. You think of the woman you'd met, six years ago, timid and shy, believing herself unworthy of love. You think of the woman who'd married you, learning, learning how incredibly worthy she was, but still, tentative in her motions. You think of the woman who'd worried over your home study, fearful that being differently abled would prevent you from adopting a child. And you see that same woman now, the woman who has become so much more confident in herself. The woman who stands her ground, speaking in rapid sign to Eloise's teachers. The woman who stands up to doctors who fight your decision to hold out on attempting cochlear implants until your daughter is able to decide that for herself. The woman who stepped clear out of her comfort zone to demand you be treated quickly when you writhed in pain in the emergency room last year, a bad case of appendicitis crippling you. You see her, this woman who loves so fiercely, so wholly, you and Eloise both, who loves herself, for who she is, and you feel your heart fill over and over again.
Once Eloise drinks her milk, she's finally ready to crawl out of your lap. Because she's going to see Grandma, she absolutely insists on putting on a new dress, the one your mother had given her for her birthday, and you'd told her needed to be saved for special occasions. It makes you she Brittany laugh, as she attempts to do it herself, needing help only with the buttons. You clip back her hair for her, and she twirls around, palming her face to remind you how pretty she looks. Brittany, she adores that, your Baby E's self confidence, and she scoops her up into her arms, kissing her face, and signing that she looks perfect.
When you get to the station, the three of you stand on the platform, Eloise in the center of you, holding fast to both of your hands, Otis glued to Brittany's other side, watching the baby closely, just in case. The rumble of the arriving train makes her yelp with uncontrollable glee. She feels it in her whole body, the vibrations and the excitement both, and you hold just a little tighter to her as she wiggles, though she knows the rules about trains and cars, streets and railroad tracks. Your mother, she steps off quickly, knowing, knowing about the little light of her life, and how patience is hard for little ones- particularly when they haven't seen their grandmother in three weeks, and that grandmother always comes carrying a treat of some sort, and a new storybook. She hurries to you, and when she's less than ten feet away, you release your daughter's hands, letting her run into Grandma's arms, while you blindly find your wife's hand, and you entwine your fingers with hers.
Your mother, she's Eloise's only grandparent. Brittany still hasn't seen her parents, not since the night you'd told them about your engagement, and they've never met your daughter. She'd been conflicted about it, so conflicted that she made herself sick, when she first came home, not wanting to deprive your daughter of something she maybe deserved to have, but then, then she decided what Eloise needed most was for her big mommy to believe in herself, to be self-confident, to shun what anyone else had to say. Brittany knew then, without a doubt, that trying to mend a relationship with the people who never tried to reach out to her, even though they had to know about Eloise, from your radio show, it would do more harm than good. And so, before your daughter's first birthday, she'd made that her final decision, and since then, she's never looked back. She's put herself and her family first, above any sense of obligation, and you couldn't be more proud of her.
"She's been beside herself. All day. If. If anyone was ever to convince your mom to move here, it would be E."
"You're right about that. She loves our baby girl more than anything." You tear your eyes from your mother, holding Eloise in her arms, signing to her about the train conductor— because your mother, she'd learned some sign for Brittany, but for Eloise, who speaks nothing else, she'd immersed herself, taking classes at the library, studying books, working with you and Brittany, until she became fluent. You tear your eyes from her, and you look at Brittany's face, shining in the late day sunlight. Eyes sparkling, as she reads your lips, as she watches their interactions, as she takes it all in.
"Hard not to adore her, isn't it?"
"I'd say closer to impossible." You trace hearts with your thumb on the inside of Brittany's wrist, and you feel it, the way her body smiles. "Like her big mommy."
"And her little mommy too." She presses a kiss to your temple, and drops your hand in favor of pulling you close, her presence engulfing you, giving you butterflies, still.
You get ready to go out, while your mom occupies Eloise. They sit on the floor of her bedroom, the forest painting Brittany had done in fits and spurts right after you'd brought her home surrounding them, and they play Memory. Taking your time getting ready, it's definitely a luxury these days, and you savor it, sitting at the mirror, putting your makeup on, and looking to Brittany, who watches you in the pane of glass as she gets dressed. She looks beautiful in her blue dress, hair pulled up, and she smiles at you, tiny lines that have formed around those universe eyes, only serving to make her more beautiful. When you're ready, you go together to kiss your daughter goodbye. She bounces on her toes, and accepts your hugs and kisses, her belly laugh echoing through the room, when Brittany sneaks one last tickle underneath her chin.
"We won't be too late, Mama." You promise, but your mother, she just shakes her head and beams down at Eloise.
"We're okay here, baby girl. Don't rush home, enjoy yourselves. You deserve it."
"Thank you, Maribel." Brittany tickles her fingers down your side, telling you that you'll entirely accept that offer. "I think we will."
Bye big mommy. Bye little mommy. I sleep good with grandma. Eloise rests her head on her hands again to emphasize the sleep, though you know, you both know that she and your mother both stretch bedtime as late as possible. I love you big.
I love you big. You and Brittany sign simultaneously, slipping out of the bedroom, just as Eloise asks your mother for her crayons.
Hand in hand, you walk through Rittenhouse Square, Otis a few steps ahead of you. On the early summer evening, the park is busy, families out together, couples wrapped in each other, single people, walking their dogs. You love it here, your safe little neighborhood, the place your wife has long felt comfortable, the place your daughter will grow up. You love it, and walking through the park with Brittany, it reminds you of every date you started or ended by doing this, of every afternoon that you'd brought lunch out and just sat on a bench enjoying each other's company, of the times when Eloise was very young, and you'd bring her out in the middle of the night when she was inconsolable and walking with her was the only way you'd get her to sleep. It's one of those places that's been a constant presence in your life, in your love story, and you lean your head on Brittany's shoulder, savoring her closeness to you.
You go to dinner at Parc. It's funny, how you used to come so much, but now, you save it for special occasions. Date nights and birthdays, and this, your silly little celebration of six years to the day since this beautiful, beautiful woman ran into you on the street, dousing you with coffee, and then instantly stealing your heart with her soft, nervous mannerisms, and her big sweetheart dog. Six years, since your whole life changed. It's not a day you usually celebrate, you mark your wedding anniversary each and every year, but this year, your mom happened to be here, this year, it falls on a Friday, so you figure, it's just an extra special date night. You hold hands with her across the table, you sip your wine, the same wine you've been drinking with her since you'd discovered you both prefer a dry white, and you can't help but stare at her. Brittany, your Brittany, she's as beautiful as ever. Brittany, your Brittany, still gives you the very same butterflies she gave you on your very first date. Butterflies that start in the pit of your stomach, and flutter up, floating, flapping, almost as if they'll lift you up.
All through dinner, you're mushy inside. It's one of the things that you tell people now, when they call your show to ask for love advice. Marry the person who you can have real talk with, who shares common goals with you, and who you know will have your back no matter what. But also marry the person who you think will still melt you inside, years in the future, with a single utterance of the words I love you. Marry the person who will give you butterflies. It will never all be melty I love you's or butterfly smiles, but they're important, they're so important. They remind you always that Brittany is the girl for you, that she's your one true love, and she always will be. Brittany teases you a little, for the way you look at her, a mix of spoken and signed language, the hybrid you've come to speak so naturally, but her eyes sparkle, and you feel your heart in your throat, because still, still, she looks at you that way, too.
After dinner, you walk down to the river. You're truly taking your mom up on her offer to stay out as late as you want, and you're glad for that. It's a little chilly by the water at night, though you're unsurprised, when Brittany pulls a sweatshirt for you out of her bag, knowing you're always the first to get cold. You pull it on, over your dress, the worn in Phillies logo falling across your chest. You snuggle in closer to Brittany on the bench overlooking the water, and for a long while, she just plays with your hair, as you look out across the water, the occasional pre-Fourth of July firework bursting out in the sky. Otis lies at your feet, same as he has on six years' worth of date nights, and you offer him up a treat from the side of your bag, Brittany smiling inwardly at how you spoil him. You think, really, that you could fall asleep right there and be perfectly content, your head on her shoulder, and your arms around each other, home, even outside of the house. But you know, you'd rather enjoy the rest of your impromptu "meetiversary" night, as you'd jokingly called it on your show in the morning, and fall into bed with Brittany later.
"You believe in fate. Right?" Brittany asks you, breaking you from your own thoughts. It's funny, you've been together a long time, but it's the first time she's ever brought this up to you. Furrowing your brow, you tilt your head, so you can see her face, and she appears to be considering it deeply.
"Fate?" You slice the air with your hand, then bring both fists down in front of you. "I think so, yeah. Why?"
"I don't know. I was just. I was thinking about meeting you. It's silly now, after all this time, to even wonder. To wonder how, of all the people in the world I could have run into, it was you. I. We. We didn't meet through people, or anything. You just happened to be walking on the same street at the same time."
"And you dumped my coffee all over my jacket." You smile, thinking of that morning. Thinking of how overwhelmed you'd been at work. Thinking of how you'd been so unbelievably frustrated when coffee splattered across you, until you looked up, and saw the most earnest face you'd ever encountered, the eyes, those eyes that hold the whole universe, that you fall just a little more in love with every day,
"You know, in Oh, The Places You'll Go, the part. The part about deciding which way to go, left or right. Or right and three-quarters."
"Of course." You smile. "Eloise got my book name, but yours is her favorite. We've read it a thousand times."
"I think, sometimes, Santana." She says your name, that way she does that makes your skin flush. "What if I had chosen different? What if I— I had gone the back way home. Or. Or if Otis stopped to go to the bathroom. Or you'd left your job even a minute later. You and I. We never would have met. The whole last six years. The would have been entirely different. It's just, it's a strange feeling. That one random decision. That changed our lives forever. In the biggest way."
"If it was fate though, Sweetheart, nothing was random. If it was fate, you were meant to turn that corner, I was meant to leave the station at exactly that time. We were meant to meet then, because we were meant for each other."
"I like that better." Brittany sighs, relieved, maybe. "I like the idea that. That everything, it sort of. Led up to that moment? Maybe. Even the bad things, they led to the best good. To you. The love of my life. To our great big life together."
"You're getting pretty good at those love words, Brittany Lopez." You find yourself wiping away tears from your eyes, and you laugh a little at yourself for how sentimental you get, when you do it. "Though I've always loved the things you say to me."
"You have. You've always just. Loved me for who I am. And wanted me— Wanted me as I came. I love you more for that."
"Who you are and how you came to me are why I love you. You're so very special, you and our daughter both, and there's never anyone I'd rather be with."
"I know. And thank you. Thank you for— for making me believe it." She presses her lips softly to yours, cupping your cheek, bringing you deeper into the kiss.
"Always and forever." You murmur against them, drawing the words with your fingertip on her lower back, through the fabric of her dress. The tactile sensations, they give away your promises, even if she doesn't hear the words, and you feel her smile against your mouth. When you pull away, you pause, just for a moment, looking deep into her eyes, the greatest depths of love for you in existence, and you smile, you smile again, at your gorgeous wife. "So how do you feel about buying me a cup of coffee before we head home?"
"I think I can handle that." Brittany bites her lip, remembering. Without another word, she slips her fingers through yours, the place they've long found home, and six years later, your gorgeous girl with with universe eyes, she pulls you close, and she starts to walk, taking you back, back, to the very beginning.