I love to watch him work.
He's fluid and relaxed, in control of the situation and unaware of his stance. I don't think he sees the way the kids watch him, trying to copy his motions and mannerisms. He has to pause to help them from time to time, lowering his bandana and talking them through whatever they're struggling with.
I watch the paint go up in a loose outline, thin and sketchy. They fill it in with wide swashes of bright color, overlapping and fading together. Edward demonstrates, his strokes precise and controlled. One of the kids tries to mimic him but the paint drips. He gathers the group around him to talk about it, crouching down to show them techniques on a corner of the piece that they'll cover up.
Rose shows up mid-afternoon, dropping down next to me where I'm sitting on top of a picnic table. "Are you sure you should be sitting up here? Does Edward approve? I mean, you could fall and-"
I smack her arm and she laughs.
"He's just a little overprotective."
"A little?" she says, raising an eyebrow. I roll my eyes.
Like he can sense what I'm thinking, he turns and grins at me. Rose sticks her tongue out at him and he shakes his head, his smile dropping. I sigh. His sense of humor seems to diminish the further I get into this pregnancy and I'm hardly even showing yet.
We watch them wrap up for the day, the crowd slowly dispersing. A kid that Edward introduced as Quil stands around, trying to do some trick on his skateboard. The third time he can't land it Edward says something that makes him hold the skateboard out, like a challenge.
I hold my breath, but like everything here, it's like he was built for this. He lands it twice and Quil rolls his eyes but they do some handshake thing and when he grabs the board back from Edward he's smiling.
I'm totally overwhelmed in the best way. Rose snickers beside me and I realize my breathing has gone shallow and my skin is flushed.
"Been a while?" she asks, astutely.
I breathe out my answer. "You have no idea." Since I found out I was pregnant he's been gentle. Too gentle. I would give anything for just a little roughness….his hand grasping my hip...winding through my hair. The thought makes me take a deep breath and Rose stares at me, grinning.
Edward walks over, untying the bandana from around his neck and using it to wipe his hands. He's got paint all over his tanned arms and he looks really and truly happy. Rose's phone rings and I know it's Emmett just by the way she answers.
He stops in front of me, putting his hands on either side of my hips and leaning in.
"It looks amazing," I say.
He shrugs, looking back at it over his shoulder, but I can tell he's proud. "We'll finish it tomorrow."
"No. Edward… it was…" I have to take a deep breath. I'm shaky on the exhale and he watches my lips, smirking. "...amazing."
"You already said that," he says, his voice low. We both smile. "You feelin' good?"
I nod. I really am.
"I thought my mom was coming." The words are heavy.
She wasn't up when I left. Probably because she polished off a bottle of wine after dinner last night.
I just shake my head and he closes his eyes for a second. When he opens them the weight is gone.
It makes me wonder where he's hiding it.
Rose ends the call and watches the two of us for a second. She stands and swats at the brim of his hat as she jumps to the ground. He frowns and straightens, adjusting it on his head.
She stands with her bag across her chest like always, one hip jutted out confrontationally. "I'm not sure I've ever had to say this to you, but dude, you need to get laid." His eyes widen and he looks around but the courtyard is mostly empty and no one is listening to us. He starts to say something but she interrupts him. "So does preggo. She practically came in her pants when you did that kick flip."
"Rose." I say it admonishingly but I can't help my grin. Edward is having the opposite reaction. He looks down, pulling his hat so it covers his eyes. He's not smiling.
She mumbles something with "humorless" and "asshole" before she leans down and whispers to my belly, something she does all the time now. Last week I asked her what she's saying and she told me it's between her and the baby and it's none of my business.
"See you at your parent's tomorrow," she says. They're having everyone over for a pool party.
Edward doesn't say goodbye and when she's gone he starts to clean up without a word.
I stand to help but he hardly lets me pick up a thing these days. "You probably shouldn't get too close to the wet paint fumes," he says. I roll my eyes but he doesn't see it.
Inside he remembers that the sink is broken and grabs a wrench, laying on his back underneath it. I watch his muscles flex and shake as he fights with the metal. After a few minutes he stands, twisting the knob to test the water. It works, of course.
Rose is right. I might spontaneously combust.
"Let's have sex." I don't think before I blurt it out.
He smiles, but I can already tell he's going to say no. "Here?" he asks, skeptically.
He shrugs and grabs a crate full of spray paint, sliding it onto the industrial shelving. "Let's wait until we get home."
I'm annoyed...or maybe hurt. Maybe both.
"It will be more comfortable."
"I don't want to be comfortable."
He slides another crate onto the shelf and looks at me. "You want to have uncomfortable sex?" He's grinning now.
"Yes. Right now."
His grin falls and I try to bite back my irritation but can't.
He lifts another crate and avoids my eyes, but I see a flash of pain on his face before he turns his back that makes me pause.
It shouldn't have taken me this long to figure out that this isn't really about sex.
"What are you really afraid of?" I ask.
He pauses, then slowly pushes the plastic crate in line with the others. When he turns he looks at my face and then his eyes go to my growing stomach. I haven't seen him look this sad in a long time.
"What if I screw up? What if something happens to him and I don't know what to do? What if…" he shakes his head like he knows it's stupid but there's real fear in his expression, "...I'm not good enough?"
I watch him raise his chin, almost defiantly, but I know enough now to know that it's a defense mechanism. It means he spoke a truth that makes him feel vulnerable and the only way he knows how to deal with that is by putting up a front.
I suppose this is what happens when a kid isn't shown unconditional love. Anger burns hot in my throat at Elizabeth in that moment. It's something I didn't expect to come along with pregnancy, but I've found that I'm even less understanding of her bullshit now that I'm going to have my own child. Conversely, Edward seems to cut her more slack. It's been five months now and she shows no sign that she's leaving, referring to herself as a built-in nanny. I've been biting my tongue but I'm not sure how much longer that will last.
His expression remains hard but he holds my gaze and I see more than just his set jaw and narrowed eyes. He falters and looks down.
"You're good enough. You're better than good enough, Edward."
He shrugs and I take a deep breath. I'm not surprised that he doesn't agree with me but I'm getting frustrated. We stand in silence until he starts to gather his stuff, throwing a sketchbook in his bag and hunting for his keys. I watch, frowning.
"You ready?" he asks, quietly.
I let him lead me out to the car, his palm pressed protectively against my lower back. He might be over the top and it might drive me nuts, but there's a part of me that understands where that comes from. He didn't know unconditional love. He was abandoned by the people who were supposed to give him that. He may have forgiven Elizabeth but I haven't and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to.
I watch him drive us home, his forearm flexing as he shifts gears and I smile at an old memory from the first time I was in his car. I still want him just as badly as I did then.
There's an open bottle of wine on the counter when we walk in. It's one I was saving.
Edward picks it up and looks at the label, frowning. Elizabeth walks out of her room with a glass in hand, her phone pressed to her ear. She smiles at both of us and continues her conversation, laughing and sipping at the glass like she didn't bail on coming with me to the art center today.
Like she didn't abandon her son at 14.
Like she's not sorry for any of it.
For a second I channel Rose and I can't keep the sneer off of my face but then I look at Edward and it falls. He still hopes. I did too, at first. At first she was contrite. She cleaned all the time and was almost timid around us. As time has passed that's changed, though. Now she shows glimpses of entitlement that I'm not sure Edward sees.
He watches her as she flirts on the phone with a guy named Marcus that she's been spending a lot of time with. They make a date and she jokes about wearing her fanciest lingerie. I cringe and glance at Edward, whose face has gone totally blank. I can't believe he doesn't see what's really going on here, but when she hangs up and turns to us he smiles.
I get a glass of water and sip on it, pushing down a wave of anger when she pours more wine in her glass.
I tell them both that I'm going to lay down for a while and Edward follows me in a few minutes later, curling up behind me and wrapping his arm around my waist, his hand low on my belly.
"I love you," he whispers.
I respond in kind, but as I hear his breathing slow and deepen, I stare out the window, my mind running through possible scenarios.
My greatest hope is that when it comes to Elizabeth, I'm wrong.
I never thought I'd come to loathe gentle, tender, quiet sex. But I do. I really do.
I hate that he doesn't talk dirty anymore, won't let me get down on my knees in front of him.
I hate that I can hear Elizabeth padding around in the kitchen right now.
If I'm being honest, that's the part I hate the most. I'm still, staring straight ahead.
We're laying on our sides and he's behind me on the bed. He slows his movements to a stop, brushing my hair behind my ear. "Are you okay?" he asks, kissing my shoulder.
I nod, but we both know I'm lying. He pushes away from me and sits on the edge of the bed, a move that leaves me feeling colder than I have in a long time. Hormones make tears prick at my eyes but I swallow that back. This isn't a time for tears. If I cry, it stops everything. It's a power I wield reluctantly.
I lay still for another moment, knowing this conversation has to happen, but dreading it just the same. Following his lead, I sit up, our backs to each other across the expanse.
It's not supposed to be like this.
When I realize he's not going to say anything, I stand up, pulling on my tank top and underwear. In the mirror I try to suck in my stomach, but I'm past that point now. I'm to the point where I have to fasten my jeans with a rubber band.
"We need to talk about your mom," I say quietly.
He stands up, finding his jeans and pulling them up roughly. I watch him thread his belt through the buckle.
"What?" he says, more harshly than he's spoken to me in a long time, his voice raised just enough to make my heart beat faster.
I expect him to back off, to apologize or hang his head, but he doesn't. He holds my gaze, his anger visible.
I tread lightly. "It's been months. She doesn't have a job. She's here all the time…I miss having time for just us. I mean, we can't even have sex, really. It's not like it used to be."
He just stares at me.
"I mean we used to be, like, all over each other and now it feels like…" I try to find the words, "like, it's all tender and polite. We don't fuck anymore, you know?" I feel hopeful, for a second, that he'll understand.
He laughs once, though, and I know this is going to end badly. "So, now I'm not fucking you right? Is that what you're saying?"
Even though I shouldn't, I roll my eyes. He sighs.
"We've already talked about this, Bella. I can't just kick her out." He speaks quietly, and I can tell he thinks this is the end of the conversation. I gear up for the fight, annoyed that he thinks he'll get out of it that easily.
"Yeah, you keep saying that." I spit the words.
He bends down to grab his shirt off the floor, pulling it on and looking at me. "Why don't we just skip all this bullshit and you just tell me exactly what you want."
"I want you to man up and take responsibility for this."
"You want me to man up," he says, the words light but dangerous.
I stop breathing. He walks past me and throws the door open. I hear him walk to his mom's room, then to the bathroom. He swears loudly and walks back in to get his keys. She must have snuck out when she heard us fighting.
"Where are you going?" I ask, my arms crossed over my chest.
"I'm going to fucking work," he says, grabbing his phone off the nightstand. "I'll have to man up later." He leaves without kissing me and without saying goodbye.
He slams the door so hard that I can feel it.
It's a tense couple of days, and his mom is intuitive enough to make herself scarce. So scarce that the confrontation doesn't happen, and I settle into a tentative acceptance of where we're at.
It's not until we decide to buy a new car that everything goes to hell. The financial guy at the dealer makes a face when he pulls up our credit reports, spinning the screen so we can see the list of maxed out cards and a loan that we didn't take out. We leave in our same old car and I'm glad for it, because Edward is gripping the steering wheel so hard I think it might snap. At least he doesn't punch anything.
He doesn't say a word the whole way home and neither do I. He helps me out of the car and waits patiently for me to take the steps, but the second we're in the apartment he walks to Elizabeth's room and throws the door open. She's not there but I can hear things crashing as he searches for the evidence we both know he'll find. He comes out with a handful of papers and an expression on his face that I haven't seen in a long time now. I can see his pulse racing, fists ready for a fight.
He doesn't yell, though, and the silence is worse.
"Edward, maybe this is a mistake. Maybe she…" but there's no excuse. The evidence is in his hand.
He throws the papers onto the coffee table and sits tensely, waiting for what he knows is coming. I feel sick. I guess I'm getting what I wanted, but now that I'm seeing the fallout I'm not sure it was worth the price. He won't look at me.
We wait for hours, but she doesn't come back. Edward won't eat or come to bed, but eventually I give in to hunger and fatigue. I'm laying in bed staring into the dark when I hear the front door open and shut.
I can't really hear their conversation, but it's quiet and brief. A few minutes later I hear his footsteps and the metallic sound of his belt and keys hitting the wood floor with his jeans. He slides into bed next to me, trying not to make any noise.
Turning slowly, I slide closer to him but he doesn't respond like he usually does. He just lays there staring up at the ceiling. I can just barely see him in the moonlight.
"She'll be gone by tomorrow," he says.
Then he rolls over, his back to me. I almost reach out to touch him but something tells me not to.
We fall asleep that way.
It's a week before he talks. It's another week after that before he will actually talk about what happened, and even then it's vague and he won't say her name. My dad, very discretely, offers to help him handle it and I'm grateful for that. I feel like I can't bring it up. I'm starting to worry that we're headed somewhere really dark until I come home to find him assembling the crib that's been leaning up against the wall in the living room for a month, carefully lining up the pieces.
He gives me a half smile and screws two pieces together, muscles flexing.
It's the smile that does it. It's all going to be okay. We're going to be okay. I'm relieved. I also feel really, really horrible. I regret saying anything. All he does is treat me well and all I do is complain. I'm a brat who doesn't deserve him.
Obviously, I'm going to be a horrible mother.
I burst into tears and he's on his feet, one hand on my cheek and the other on my stomach.
"What? What's wrong?"
"Stop it! Stop being so nice to me. I'm awful," I say, unable to stop the ugly crying face. "All that stuff I said was horrible. And I didn't want to be right about your mom. I didn't. And I don't care how we do it, but I need to be close to you. You can't just shut me out right now. I can't take it."
He pulls me into his arms tightly and I breathe deeply, already feeling better.
After a long minute he backs up, looking at my face. He sighs and backs up further, dropping down onto the couch, his elbows on his knees.
"I fucking knew something was off. I mean...I should have known. I didn't want to listen and you were right. All of you were right."
I sit next to him. "Are you okay?" I ask.
He stares at the floor for a long time before answering. "I will be. I'm fucking pissed about the money, though."
I shrug. "It's just money."
He turns to stare at me and there's a weariness on his face that I've never known. It says a lot about a struggle that I know I can't relate to, and probably never will. He smiles, though. Because there will always be those things between us. It's what makes us...us.
"You did the right thing, you know. Trying. Most people wouldn't."
"Didn't really pay off in the end, did it?" he says.
"No, but stuff like that...you do it because you're a good person."
He doesn't respond to that but I know he hears it. He looks down and takes a few deep breaths, holding back something that is probably as much relief as it is regret.
"Are we good?" I ask.
He nods, but then he's narrowing his eyes at the ground, his knee bouncing. "I can't believe you said all that shit. About our sex life."
I wince. All of the things I was feeling in that moment seem foreign to me now, the complaints petty and irrelevant. "Hormones?" I say, hoping he'll let it go.
He makes a face. "I just…"
I wait while he finds the words. "I just want to be good to you….and him. And I don't really know how to do that." I smile, because he's wrong.
"You are, by far, the best man I know," I say, bringing my hand up to the back of his neck. I kiss his shoulder. "But sometimes I just want you to, like, grab my hair and…" I grab roughly at the air in front of me trying to show him what I mean. When I try to thrust my hips he laughs, and it's the best sound. My world rights itself.
That's all it takes.
We smile at each other, then the smiles fall and he leans in to kiss me. He takes off my shirt and it starts slow but the deeper we kiss the more frantic his movements get. He pushes me back on the couch and pulls my pants off, pausing to stand and pull his shirt over his head. I sit up and undo his belt while he watches, and I start to see that we can have it both ways. I push him back on the couch and climb on top of him, pulling closer until we're flush, until he can't get deeper, both of us holding our breath. I set the pace and he lets me go faster and harder than we have in months. His brow is furrowed but it's not worry; it's because he's trying not to come too fast. I tear up when I do, but only because this is what I've been missing. We lay on the couch, his head on my chest, until he gets up to finish building the crib.
I watch him piece it together, slowly building something strong and stable for our family, and I know this is the way life goes. We're imperfect. We're a work in progress. But we're trying.
I stand in the doorway, watching the scene unfolding on my parents' deck. Everyone's here. My family...Edward's family. Rose and Emmett.
"You've never been golfing? I'll take you to the club," my dad says to Carlisle.
"Sounds great," Carlisle says. He and my dad clink their gin and tonics together.
Esme almost chokes on her beer, horrified. "Golf?"
Carlisle just shrugs, a small smile on his face. My dad laughs.
Rose shrieks as Emmett hoists her onto his shoulders and stands up in the pool. "Hey Preggo! Chicken fight."
I roll my eyes and she calls me a pussy.
"Rose!" my mom and Esme say at the same time.
Everyone laughs and Emmett tips Rose into the water as she shrieks.
I sit down next to Edward as Esme puts down her beer so she can stand behind me. She pushes pressure points on my neck and I relax into her touch.
The baby kicks and I smile. "He's kicking," I tell Esme. She puts her hand on my belly and laughs when his foot presses against her palm.
I thought we couldn't feel more. I thought we didn't have space for more love, but I'm finding infinite room for all of it. Our family expands and I see now there's no limit to how much all of us have to give to each other, to this baby.
Rose and Emmett join us, wrapped in towels. She sits on his lap and stares at my stomach, smiling, her head resting on his chest.
Emmett called me last week to tell me that he wants to propose. He bought the ring. He's afraid, though. Any kind of change can be hard on Rose. Her excitement can be just as scary as her anger or sadness. Scarier, even.
Right now like this, though, I can't imagine not looking forward to the next steps we're all about to take. I find Edward's hand and weave my fingers through his. No matter what happens, at this moment, with these people, it's pretty close to perfect.
Anthony is born in the middle of the night, his little hands and feet blue. It takes him thirty-seven seconds to let out his first cry, and I'll never doubt time again. I'll never wish for it to pass faster, or slower. I'll never let myself be bored or ungrateful or selfish with time as long as I live.
He and Edward are instant. He calms as soon as Edward picks him up. They have the same smirk, and even before he can walk I know he'll be cool like his father. He'll be effortless. And he'll be trouble, no doubt.
He's the first for all of us. The first child and grandchild. The first person that we can teach to be better than we were... than we are.
Rose and Emmett get married that year. A small affair in the park. She walks down the aisle barefoot and we drink sparkling apple juice out of champagne flutes. Their happiness matches my own, and no matter what we do or where we go, I know the two of them will be right alongside us.
Jasper and Alice move to San Diego and after a few years we don't hear from them anymore. These thing happen, though. Chapters close. People move away and move on. It's the last piece of a life that I was once sure I'd have, but don't want anymore.
We have a second boy and then a third and then Edward gets a vasectomy, something he may never be able to talk about without cringing. We stay in our apartment as long as we can but eventually we have to buy a house, not far from my parents.
Jake meets a girl named Gianna who completely has him by the balls from day one. Everyone loves her. We still have barbecues at Billy's, and it's rare, but sometimes even Leah and Jared and Sam come home. Those nights, when the kids are with their grandparents and all of us are sitting around laughing and telling stories, it doesn't feel like even a minute has passed.
Esme and Carlisle dote on our boys like they're their own. My parents, too. We rely on them more than we should but I wonder if this isn't how it should be. Being raised by whole families with so much love that there's a surplus.
Edward and I weather all of it, and I still look at him and feel like I did when we were young. I still want to hold his hand and wrap my arms around him from behind while he does the dishes. He still looks at me like I'm the only one and when we're alone he can still do things that leave my heart pounding and my legs shaking. We still laugh and flirt and I still wake up every morning feeling lucky to have him next to me.
I still wake up and feel lucky that we chose one another.
Over time pictures fade, becoming stories we don't remember until our kids pull them out of albums and hold them out as evidence of our youth and our defiance, our struggle and our history. We smile. We watch murals being painted over. We see the ghost yard leveled and paved into a parking lot. People that we love get gray and wrinkled and we accept loss that we know each and every one of us will have to live through.
We know that someday, we won't even be a memory.
All that matters is that it happened.
Once, this was everything.
Once, we were here.