A/N: This may actually be a record for the most times I've rewritten or changed a chapter. This may also be a record for the longest someone has taken to reach the midpoint of a story.
As this apparently needs explaining, there is a magical thing called pan-Asian cuisine that allows one to dine on sushi, fortune cookies, and for reasons I can't explain, French fries, all at once. It is traditionally served in a brown paper bag with plastic silverware, a warm diet Coke, and at least three cartons of rice.
"Abby?" I hear the door to the porch slide open. "What are you doing out here?"
"I don't know." I shrug. "Thinking, I guess." There's a thud as the door slides shut and then footsteps, and then he's sitting next to me, and suddenly I realize how much I wanted him to come out here.
He reaches over and takes the cigarette from between my index and middle fingers and takes a long drag. I watch as the smoke curls out from his lips, slowly, and there's something strangely intimate about sharing a cigarette. He looks at me and smiles a little. "Just trying to save you from yourself."
"Once drag at a time," I murmur. I remember New Year's Eve, five years ago, sitting on the fire escape outside Susan's apartment trying like hell to avoid being kissed at midnight and listening to the sound of people counting down inside, and on the street below, and everywhere else.
"You're going to miss it," comes his voice. "Come on in."
I don't turn around. "I want to enjoy my last cigarette before my New Year's resolution kicks in."
"Quitting smoking?" He sits down next to me, and the stairway is so narrow that he's pressed right up against me and I'm very aware of the fact that I haven't been this close to him since I hugged him goodbye, before he left for the Congo.
"Quitting is a big word. I don't want to set myself up for failure." I inhale and let the smoke trail out slowly. "I'm more aiming for a temporary recess."
He laughs a little and pries the cigarette from between my fingers.
"What are you doing?"
He inhales. "Saving you from yourself, one drag at a time."
Inside I can hear everyone counting down the last few seconds, four, three, two, and all of a sudden it comes down on me like a tidal wave, how much I miss being kissed. I reach for the cigarette, for one last drag, but he holds it out, away from me, and leans in and then it's not the cigarette I want so much anymore.
To this day, I don't know how much of it was a New Year's tradition and how much of it was really him kissing me, and wanting to, and I guess I've never really asked because I don't want to know. There are enough moments in our collective past where the door was wide open and one or both of us pretended there wasn't still something there. I'd sort of rather just let it be ambiguous and not think about the fact that a couple weeks later, he was with someone else.
He holds the cigarette back out to me and I take it and just watch it burn for a minute, consuming itself.
"Want to talk about it?"
I don't say anything at first, just keep staring at the ash accumulating until my fingers start to feel hot. He takes it from me and stubs it out.
"I lost a patient today," I say, and I'm not talking very loudly but my voice seems deafening compared with the silence. "Nineteen years old. Took a bottle of sleeping pills with a bottle of vodka and then slit his wrists. We found anticoagulants in his system." I look down at my hands. There are black smudges of ash on my fingertips. "His parents found him face-down in the pool. It's hard to imagine someone wanting to die badly enough that they'd plan for contingencies."
I can hear Luka let out a soft breath. He reaches over and takes one of my hands between both of his and waits for me to keep going.
"The parents were just standing there while we worked on him, like they knew. Not that we couldn't save him, but that it was…I don't know. Inevitable. They were so calm. Afterward the father told me it was the third time he'd tried, that they'd done everything they could to help him, got him a psychiatrist, sent him to some wilderness program, committed him, but that once he was eighteen they couldn't force him anymore. That they'd tried getting a court order and all it had done was make things worse."
"He was bipolar," Luka says. It's not really a question, and I don't answer it. He leans over and kisses my shoulder. "It's not always like that."
"Sometimes it is. A lot of times. And I just…I think about if Joe…" I can't bring myself to say it out loud. "If he's sick, if someday he's going to be that unhappy, and we won't be able to do anything. And I wonder if he'll hate me for doing that to him."
"You didn't do anything to him but give him a life."
I shake my head. "What if the one I gave him isn't what he wants, though? I just…I can't imagine not having him. I don't want to, but that's what I keep coming back to, whether someday he's going to hate me for having him, knowing it was a possibility."
"You don't know that, Luka." I shiver, and he pulls me closer. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you don't know what it's like to be terrified that you'll wake up one day and have your first manic episode. And even worse, that you won't realize it. That you'll lose the ability to make rational decisions. I was so terrified that would happen to me. I kept waiting to go from being Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, and even when I was fine, I was terrified it was happening and I just didn't realize it. And I hated Maggie for doing that to me."
He's quiet for a little while, and so am I. Part of me wonders if he knows that it wasn't that I didn't want a baby, because I did, I just wouldn't let myself acknowledge it because it would mean going back on the promise I'd made to myself when I was thirteen years old that I'd never be so selfish in wanting a baby that I'd curse it with that possibility. Eighth-grade biology was sort of a revelation, as far as all that goes, and realizing that there was this toxic thing in me and passing it on to someone else would be the worst thing I could ever do. And I think up until the moment I took that test and knew I wasn't just pregnant, but pregnant with Luka's child, I'd fooled myself into believing I didn't want that.
"I was always taller than Niko," he says. "I think starting when I was eight or nine. We'd play soccer together, and I'd be faster and kick farther, and his friends would tease him that his baby brother could beat him up. Which I could have, if I didn't think my mother would kill me." He turns my hand over in his and traces circles on my palm. "We had this school tournament, one year, for the World Cup. All the classes were given a country, and instead of playing by eliminating classes, we'd play based on how the real teams did, to make it fair for the younger students. My class drew the Netherlands, and Niko's drew Argentina."
There's a pause, and I realize he's waiting to see if I grasp some underlying significance. I clear my throat. "I have absolutely no idea what that means, Luka."
He nods slowly, and there's a twitch of a smile on his face. "They ended up as the two teams in the final. In the real game, Argentina won, three goals to one. But in our game, the Netherlands won. One to none. It had been tied almost the whole game, and then – "
"You kicked the winning goal."
He nods again. "Niko just stood there, in the middle of the field, after it was over, and my classmates were hitting me on the back and cheering, and I knew it was driving him crazy but I didn't care. I liked being the center of it, right up until he punched me."
"He punched you?"
"He split my lip open." He bites it gently. "After they got done yelling at him that night, he told our mother he hated her for making him short and that he hated my father for making me tall." He pulls me closer, one arm around me, and I lean in and just let him hold me. He kisses my head. "He could hate us for a lot of things, Abby. I know it's not the same, but still…there's always risks, always gambles that you take when you make a baby. It doesn't mean you shouldn't."
We're both quiet again, just sitting there together until my fingers and toes start to go numb and I stand up and pull him along after me. I look up at him as the light flickers on inside. "I want you to know something."
"Okay." He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear.
"It's going to be very, very hard for me to avoid bringing that up the next time I see your brother."
We're in bed the next night, reading – or rather, him reading, me staring at the same paragraph of a journal article for twenty minutes – when he asks if I'm okay. I shrug. "Yeah. I guess."
He puts down his book. "Still thinking about the kid?"
I nod. "I just…I can't imagine how it must be for the parents. I keep seeing their faces, and they looked…not relieved, but like…"
"Glad that he's not suffering anymore," Luka murmurs.
"Yeah." I sigh a little. "I'm kind of thinking of giving up on the whole idea of sleeping. It didn't work out too well last night."
He reaches down and takes my hand, just sort of playing with my fingers. "I know. I sleep next to you, remember?"
"Sorry. I didn't realize – "
"Okay." I shift a little closer to him and he wraps one arm around me and sort of pulls me toward his chest. I lean my head against him and close my eyes. "Doesn't it scare you?"
"Does what scare me?"
"That he'll be bipolar."
He runs his fingers through my hair. "It does. But not more than anything else that might happen to him."
I wonder for a moment if he's referring to what did happen to his children, to Jasna and Marko, which of course is a thousand times worse than – well, anything. But for all the anger and regret and everything else he has, I think he's able to separate our marriage and our child from what he had before. Sometimes I think I'm the one who can't, that I'm still afraid of saying the wrong thing or reminding him of what happened. It's stupid, I guess, because it's not like there's ever a time when he's not aware of it. But it's like how, when people would ask if Joe was our first when I was pregnant, I could never answer them. Luka never seemed bothered or like he felt guilty for answering that yes, it was our first, which, I mean, was technically true – he was our first together. But I couldn't say it, because it felt like pretending Marko and Jasna never existed.
One of the many items still on my list of things to work out.
We sit there, him supporting the weight of me even as I do less and less of the work of holding myself up. Eventually he shuts off the lamp and slides down so his head is on the pillow and mine is cradled in the space between his shoulder and his chin. One of his arms holds me against him, and the other is draped over his chest so that he can run his fingers up and down my arm, barely even touching me, just making enough contact that I know it's there.
Eventually his fingers stop moving and it's quiet enough that I can hear him run his tongue over his lips. "I'd rather take the risk of him being bipolar than have a baby with someone else and know he wouldn't be." He pauses. "I probably should have told you that a long time ago."
"It's because you want him to have my disarming wit, isn't it?"
"I'm serious, Abby." His fingers inch under my palm and clasp our hands together. "I thought, for a long time, being a father again would make me…it would fix something. Maybe it was selfish to want that, for those reasons. I don't know, I just know…it doesn't matter what risks there are. It's right, because it's us."
I don't say anything for a while, just lay there, head on his chest, feeling his breath on my forehead and how every so often his fingers relax or contract around mine. Eventually, I disentangle my hand from his so that I can reach up and run it along the line of his jaw, over his cheek, feel the twitch of his pulse under my fingers. I can feel him smile.
"I wasn't saying it to make you feel better, Abby."
"I know. I mean, thank you for…thinking those things. About us. Me. It's hard, sometimes. Not…knowing."
He reaches around to spread his palm across the base of my head and pull me towards him, and he's barely kissing me at first but it's enough that I'm not thinking about anything else but how unbelievably stupid I must've been not to have taken the chance that night on Susan's fire escape and kissed him right into the new year.
He calls me the next day at work, just before noon. "Hey." His voice is soft. "How are you?"
"I'm…okay. Busy morning, but, you know, mostly just minor stuff. So it was okay."
"Good." I can almost hear the lopsided smile and the hair falling onto his forehead. "So I was thinking, if you weren't too busy, I'd come there and we could get lunch."
"Yeah…I mean, I'm not teaching until two, and it's slow here…so if you wanted – "
I drop my head a little so that it's not glaringly obvious to everyone in the ambulance bay that I'm smiling so hard my lips might start to bleed. "That'd be nice. Thanks."
"I'll be there in…I don't know, twenty minutes, probably. Want me to pick something up?"
He laughs. "I mean, what do you want me to pick up?"
"Oh. I don't care, whatever you want." I catch myself. "Not from the Eastern European deli, though."
"Okay. Fine. I'll bring something boring. Without scales."
"Or a head."
"Or a head," he repeats. "What about – "
"No tails, either." I feel like I'm a teenager, sometimes, with these little mock arguments that are really just flirting. Like he's pulling my pigtails and I'm pretending not to like the attention. "I'll see you when you get here."
"Yes?" He sort of draws out the word.
I can't help thinking about when we were first together, right in the beginning of things, and then Maggie showed up and I tried, really tried, to trust him enough to talk about it. Except he was terrible at picking up hints and I was even worse at just coming out and asking for what I needed. And how we're here, eight years later, and I don't need to drop a hint or ask him, he just knows. Half the time he knows what I need before I realize it, myself.
Time is a funny thing like that.
We walk a couple of blocks and eat by the water, and it reminds me of Chicago and County and how when I was pregnant, he'd make sure I took a break for lunch every day. Even when he wasn't on, he'd bring me something on whole grain with amino acids and calcium and all that, probably to make up for the stash of Ring-Dings and Fritos in my locker that he pretended not to know about. It was kind of annoying at the time, but I think he knew that I appreciated it and that feeling like I had someone to take care of me when I needed it made the whole baby thing a lot less terrifying.
I think he definitely knows how much I appreciate that, now, from the way I can't stop touching him and smiling the whole time we're sitting there on the bench together.
"Want a bite?" He holds out a sushi roll with some sort of unidentifiable fish and gooey stuff in it.
"I'm going to stick with my chicken, thanks."
He stuffs it in his mouth and I wrinkle my nose at him. "What?" He asks me through a mouthful of food.
I roll my eyes and hand him a napkin. "You're worse than Joe, you know that?"
He swallows. "It's fine, when you have good hair, nobody worries about your table manners. He has good hair, too."
"I'm not arguing. I'm just saying it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to set an example."
"And remind me who taught him to throw his cereal?"
"That was a slip in judgment. And besides…you deserved it."
His fingers brush against mine. "I see." I don't say anything, just eye him as I take another bite. He clears his throat. "So, I was wondering…whether you had any plans for next weekend."
"You mean besides the royal ball and tea with the Queen? No, I'm wide open."
"Come on, Luka. You know my weekend plans. Same as yours – sleep, play with Joe, do errands, and if there's time, have amazing sex."
He grins. "Right. Well – besides the errands, I guess…how would you feel about doing all that in New York? There's a medical conference there next weekend and the faculty mentor that was supposed to go had to cancel at the last minute."
"They asked you to go instead?"
"I helped out on the paper, so yeah, they asked if I'd go. I don't have to, I just thought it might be nice."
"Nice for…who? I mean, I get wanting to help, and New York is…I don't know, New York, it's just that…we have Joe. I don't think he'd be all that happy to be stuck in a car for half the weekend."
A couple of squirrels are closing in on us, eyeing our lunch, and Luka unwraps a fortune cookie and throws it off into the grass. "Here. Shoo!"
"You know they're just going to come back."
He sighs. "Probably. There's a train from Boston to New York that takes about three hours."
"I guess he might like that."
"You don't have to decide now. I said I'd let them know tomorrow. It's – I won't be upset if you don't want to, I just thought it might be fun."
I nod slowly. "Just – promise me that there's no ulterior motive, here. You're not going to, like, book us a suite at the Four Seasons or anything, right?"
He looks at me blankly. "What?"
"It's just, I love you, and I love that you do romantic stuff, but after the whole surprise wedding thing…I don't want to say I don't trust you…"
He laughs. "No. No surprises, I promise. Just a conference."
"I didn't say no surprises. It is New York, after all." I nudge his foot with mine. "It's not like dinner at Le Bernardin would be the worst thing in the world."
"Le Bernardin, huh?"
"Or Jean Georges. I don't want to be picky."
He runs his fingers through his hair. "How do you even know about these places?"
"Some cooking channel. It's always on in the doctors' lounge."
"I see. So…Jean Georges or…what was it?"
"Luka." He looks at me, eyebrows furrowed. Crap. I realize he might've actually caught on to what that tone of voice means. I clear my throat. "I'm just kidding around. Don't take this the wrong way, but unless the head chef comes down with a mysterious illness between now and next weekend that only you can diagnose, there isn't a chance in hell we could get a reservation at either of those places. Besides." I lean against him, and he wraps an arm around my shoulders. "I sort of like this whole…casual dining thing. It suits us, don't you think?"
He rests his chin on my head. "I do."
I'm late to my meeting on Sunday, thanks entirely to how conducive being curled up with my two favorite men on a cold day, listening to Luka's voice as he reads aloud, is to napping. It's not until Joe starts tugging on my shirt and demanding I wake up that I realize we averted a real disaster – Luka's snoring softly and it's honestly a miracle that Joe didn't use the opportunity to destroy the entire house. I leave an irritated toddler and a bleary-eyed husband to their Legos and have to sneak into the meeting and sit at the back. Not that I really think I'm fooling anyone, but it's crowded today, so even if I didn't feel like I was sneaking into math class late, I don't think it's all that likely I'd get a seat up front anyway.
I'm half-listening to a woman talk about her teenage daughter while I roll around in my head whether I want to share, myself – I mean, I know that it'd probably be a good idea given that I still haven't slept through the night since that kid came in, but there are an awful lot of people here, some of them faces I don't recognize, and there's a voice in my head telling me that maybe I should just let somebody else share, somebody whose problems are more of a threat to their sobriety.
I also know that it's an excuse, because even after this long and after rehab, I still like sharing about as much as I like going to the dentist. Having everyone's attention on me makes me feel like an ant under a magnifying glass, except being burnt to a crisp by the sun's rays wouldn't be so bad when the alternative is exposing my insecurities to a bunch of relative strangers.
A girl in the row in front of me who I don't recognize shifts in her seat, and I don't know quite what it is – maybe the way she keeps fidgeting, maybe that she's biting her nails, maybe just some sort of alcoholic's radar – but I can tell just from looking that this is her first time at a meeting. I guess, thinking back to my first time, I can recognize it because there's a certain discomfort that just oozes out of a person when they come for the first time. Shame, fear, denial, anxiety, every crappy feeling you can think of hits you like a ton of bricks the first time. I was twenty-five the first time I went to a meeting and after that it took me two years to work up the nerve and self-awareness to go back. I don't know what was worse – going to that first meeting or going back after I'd thrown away six years of sobriety so I could prove to myself I was normal.
The woman who was sharing finishes and another woman starts to talk, and she gets about three sentences in before the girl in front of me grabs her bag and bolts. A couple of heads turn and there are a few looks of concern, but it's not like it's anything new. I don't know quite why I decide to take it upon myself – maybe my desire to avoid sharing really is that strong – but I get up a minute later and walk outside to find her sitting on the curb, knees drawn to her chest, huddled in her sweatshirt and smoking a clove cigarette.
I sit, far enough away that she has room but not so far that I have to raise my voice for her to hear me. "The first meeting always sucks."
She turns. I hadn't seen her face up until now and the first thing that strikes me is how much eyeliner she's wearing. I'm sure there's some sort of metaphor that's appropriate, about trying to hide or something, but it's not really the time to contemplate the abstractions of the English language. "How'd you know?"
"I've had a couple of first meetings, myself. Pretty much the only thing that compares is that dream where you show up to school and realize you're naked."
There's the faintest hint of a smile on her face, so small I might be imagining it. "I'm not sure this is the right place for me. I don't…I guess I just wanted to see what it was like."
"Can I give you a piece of advice?"
She shrugs. "Sure."
"If you're not sure it's the right place for you, that usually means it is." She doesn't look at me, and I can't tell from the way her hair is falling in her face if she's rolling her eyes or what. "I know it doesn't seem like it the first time you walk in, but there's a lot of people here for a lot of different reasons. There are people who've been coming for years and they're still not sure it's the right place. But if it helps…it doesn't really matter."
"I don't think it's supposed to make you want to go get shitfaced."
"Probably not in theory." I scuff my toe on the pavement. "But if you don't walk out of at least one meeting feeling like you could use a drink, or even wishing someone would clobber you over the head with a bottle of tequila, you're not doing it right."
"Guess I didn't see that on the website." A piece of strawberry-blonde hair that looks like it's the texture of straw whips around in the wind and she reaches up to pull her hair into a bun, fastening it with a rubber band. The cigarette hangs out of her mouth as she talks. "I appreciate it and all, but I think I just want to go home."
I look at my watch. "Meeting's going to be over in half an hour. Might as well come inside."
She chews on her lower lip. "I'm not so sure."
"Tell you what – come back inside, sit in the back with me and judge what everyone else is wearing, and if you still hate it when the meeting is over, I'll buy you a beer."
She turns to look at me. "Seriously?"
"No, but that would be pretty funny." I smile, and this time I'm almost positive I see her doing the same. "Cup of coffee, maybe."
"Yeah, the coffee here is…no offense, it just tastes like shit."
"I know. It's how we keep folks from coming just for the snacks."
She stands up, finally, and shrugs again. "Okay."
"Okay," I repeat, and stand up. "I'm Abby, by the way."
"It's…I mean, is it okay to – "
"First names are okay. It's not quite as strict as witness protection."
"Oh. Um, Caroline." She rolls her eyes. "My parents were big Neil Diamond fans."
I hold open the door and she follows me back inside. As we're sitting down I see Jill looking back at me from a few rows ahead with her eyebrows raised, and I can't tell if she's impressed or wondering what the hell I think I'm doing walking out, even if it is with the best of intentions. I give her a little smile, trying to tell her I get it, whatever it is. And I do get it, exactly what I've just done, not just reaching out but sacrificing a few minutes of a meeting to help somebody else. It's not entirely noble. I know that what I need to be doing is focusing on getting to that one-year mark, and that everything else is a threat to my sobriety that I shouldn't take. The thing is, though, I remember the last times I got sober and how I felt at this point, almost a year into it, and this time it feels completely different.
I'm not saying there aren't days I'm tempted by the thought of a drink, but it's not overwhelming. When I have those days, when I feel like I need a drink, I've gotten to the point that my first instinct isn't to have one, it's to go to a meeting. Maybe I'm setting myself up for something, but I don't think I am, and so if I can help this girl, it feels worth that little bit of risk.
I guess that's part of the thing with AA – weighing your own needs against the need to pay it forward. With everything that's happened over the past year, the people in rehab, Janet, Luka, Pratt, all those people supporting me in various ways, I feel like I've got this monumental debt of gratitude and if I don't pay it forward, there's something being lost. Like all the times my first sponsor peeled me off the ceiling of the ladies' room and back into a meeting, all the late-night, tearful phone calls to Janet, going out of my mind without Luka and Joe there with me, all the times I know will come, inevitably, when I'm having a rough time and Jill will drop everything to help me through it – it seems like I'm taking all that for granted if I don't do the same for somebody else.
And I have this one, monumental thing working in my favor that I didn't have the last time, or the time before – that when I'm having a rough day, when I'm going 'round in circles, stuck on something that's bothering me or that's scaring the shit out of me or whatever, I don't have to deal with it alone. Being able to look at Luka and have him know exactly what I'm feeling and what I need and letting him hold me, trusting him and trusting myself enough to talk to him about it, and being able to hold my son and feel that kind of intense love for something that for just a minute makes everything else disappear, that's a big deal. Not just because Luka is there for me or because he and Joe make me so indescribably happy, but because the risk of losing them and having come so close to having to live without them – my desire to hold onto that outweighs the temptation of a drink.
Really, it outweighs everything.