Trash Cans and Paper Memories
Here in our barn, I watch her heavy eyelids and her lazy smile until her words are incoherent. Until she's asleep. I slide out from the warmth of the down comforter, pulling on my pants as I go. Trying not to make a sound, I climb down the ladder. I turn off the generator and watch the lights go black. The clouds have reconvened as they always do.
Night in the country.
The last time I slept in this place I was on the floor. I was alone. I had decided to be her friend. As if we could ever be friends. I had dreams of what we once were but never what we could be. Because that dream was too dangerous to entertain.
And now, all I can do is smile like a fool.
We're here in this place and soon she will be my wife.
Husband and wife, mother and father. So many titles that I had convinced myself we would never have. All titles that mean so much more than the letters that come after my name.
I watch the rumbling clouds break open. A shiver runs through me, shaking me to the core. And I don't know what I'm doing standing here in the dirt. In the cool night air. When she is up there. Sleeping and messy hair and Bella.
Back in the comfort of the loft, I shrug off my pants and crawl back under the covers with her.
My new job starts the day after tomorrow. I should sleep. Instead, I watch her.
She fidgets in her dreams. Maybe one day it will be annoying, but right now it's perfect. She's perfect. The corner of her mouth turns up in a half smile. And then she's pouting. In her sleep. I want to kiss it away.
I whisper along her collar bone. "My beautiful girl." I brush my lips over the skin in the hollow of her neck. Once. Twice. Three times. Until there is no stopping. And my hands are trying not to be too greedy. My too cold hands against the warmest skin.
She doesn't open her eyes as she rolls towards me. As she pulls my face to hers. In the middle of the night. Lights out. Rain on the roof.
Her hands and her mouth are just as greedy as mine. I need her so much that it's terrifying. And not terrifying at all. The way the back of her head fits perfectly cradled in my palm. The way my other hand molds to her breast. The way her own endless fingertips run along my face. The way she takes me in her hand and guides me to her.
I'm inside of her. And everything is warm and Bella.
Here in the dark there is only black and white and endless shades of grey. It's slow and sleepy fucking. In our barn.
Below me, she's quiet and melting as my hands trace every bit of her. Until her jaw goes slack in a silent scream.
And now she is the one torturing me. Taking control. Slow. Rolling on top of me. And I let her. Her eyes finally open. Barely. Black and white and grey.
The relentless sound of water beating on the roof. Steady. Just for us.
Having her like this, as she rolls her hips in time with the rhythm of the rain is like being buried alive and watching it happen. Letting it happen. Surrendering. The best kind of torture.
As I lose myself in her, I can understand why people chase storms. The perfect destruction.
I don't care if we wake up the entire forest. Because we are no longer quiet. And I think I might be proposing again. As she fills the vast space with four letter words. And fuck, maybe I do too.
This is what it feels like to be gone. Gone in love. I have never felt this alive.
I can't imagine ever accepting the idea that we could never have this. That I would never see her like this, blissed out and wrapped around me. As our breathing slows and her mouth nips at my skin.
Still inside of her, forehead to forehead, she asks me if I'm sure. About the adoption. Again and again. I tell her yes. Again and again. And maybe she just likes hearing the word.
We sleep on and off most of the night. With a lopsided smile, she claims we need to practice for the sleep deprivation that will accompany parenthood. I don't tell her that sleep deprivation has been my life for the last ten years. Because I am willing to practice with her forever.
The next day is lazy. In this bed. In the grass. Running from the rain.
We make the walk back home, and this is what it must feel like to be seventeen and in love and incapable of giving a shit about anything else but the person next to you. Because we're untouchable. Invincible. This is our forever.
And when we're home it feels like the beginning of our life together as adults. But part of me will always be seventeen.
She kisses me goodbye on the porch. Tiptoes and a brown bag lunch. She's in nothing but her bathrobe. I gather the material in my fist, and she shudders. I look down at her bare feet on the cool weathered wood, and I want to tell her to go back inside. But I don't because I could get used to front porch goodbyes.
The morning air rosies her cheeks. God, she's beautiful.
I start my new job and it's pediatrics, but it's not LA. It's not downtown or the city or pediatric trauma or trying to save something I thought I could save. Although I walked away willingly, I thought I'd miss that place. It had become my entire life. But priorities shift.
My new life is this town and simple and Bella.
I go to work every day and it's just a job. I go to work and Bella deals with the roofer and the plumber and the painter. This house, this life, is important to her. It's important to me too. It's the kind of house that my mom would have raised us in if it had been entirely up to her. If she had known just how fleeting her own life would be.
I love the idea that this town will belong to our children. It will be theirs. Their hometown.
Alice extends her stay. She wants to help with the wedding. And Bella is more than happy to let her, because she has other things on her mind. Her only stipulation is that the ceremony be outside, so we're getting married right away, before winter sets in. Everyone is going to think it's a shotgun wedding. And maybe in some ways it is. Because hopefully we'll be bringing home a baby girl.
Bella has thrown herself into the adoption process. It's completely overwhelming. Everything that needs to be done. Medical testing, fingerprinting, background checks. Home visits, interviews, letters of reference. It's a full time job. One that Bella has embraced, but I can tell that she is exhausted at the end of the day. I was naive to think it would involve some paperwork, a pile of money and a couple of plane tickets. Apparently, it doesn't work that way.
I take my lunch break. I pull that book from my bag. To Kill a Mockingbird. I used to go weeks, months without opening it. Because when I did, I would become obsessive. I would leaf through the pages for hours. I would lay out the photos tucked inside. I would stay up half the night studying her face. It was as if I needed some tangible proof that she was real. That it had all happened.
And now I find myself obsessing again. Only this time around I know she's real and not only did it all happen, but she's still here. Her face and her lips and her toes are all here. And when she's next to me in our bed, or across from me at our kitchen table, or tucked into my side on our couch, our life together seems so definite. Ours.
But we're not invincible and I'm not seventeen. When I'm away from her, when I'm here at work, the panic creeps in to my veins slowly and quietly. I want to give her everything she has ever wished for and I hope and I pray that she doesn't wake up one day and decide that it's not enough.
I open the book up. I blink twice. I close it, turning it over in my hand. I check the cover. As if it could be someone else's copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, filled with someone else's photos. Right.
I open it again hesitantly. Bella's words and my mother's words and the author's words.
It's a photo I've never seen. She's small. So, so small. She's staring directly at me. I wasn't there. I didn't take the picture. I know all this, but she's looking at me. Like she's right here in front of me. Her dark hair sits in tight curls against her head. Her wide eyes are as serious as can be. Her pouty lips, pursed and sullen. She is reaching one arm up, a blurred hand in the face of the camera.
It's just a photo. A piece of paper. But my skin is prickling. And my pulse is racing. And I thought only one person could do that to me.
It is only now that I notice Bella in the photo too. Bella's pale arm sits in stark contrast to the dark skin of the baby's tiny, perfect face. She already feels like our daughter.
Bella holds her close. I look back and forth between their faces. Running my thumb over them both.
My hand halts as I stare at Bella. She looks different. This photo was taken a mere five months ago but this is not the woman who kisses me goodbye on the porch and nudges me awake before my alarm goes off in the morning. Maybe it's the hollowness in her cheeks that no longer exists.
Change can be so slow that it's impossible to tell that anything is different or better until it's staring you in the face.
The Bella who showed up on my doorstep in the pouring rain is not the same Bella with a ring on her finger. But she is. People don't change. But maybe people change every day.
I close the book up, glancing at my watch.
I make a phone call. And then another. And another. Until my heart is in my shoes. But I don't accept what these people keep telling me. I refuse. I shouldn't be keeping things from her, but I can't help but want to protect her from the truth.
Hours later I get in my car and I drive home.
I call Bella on the way. She answers on the fourth ring, out of breath and sexy as hell.
I can't help but smile, wide and honest, at the sound of her voice.
"Are you on your way home?"
There is silence on the other end of the line and I can picture her face. The way her brow knits together.
"Everything okay, Bella?"
"It's just been a long day."
The house smells like bread in the oven. I find her in the kitchen, covered in flour. She's smiling and fidgeting as she turns to kiss me.
I kick my shoes off. And I watch her.
She turns around with her flour hands in the air. "I know you said no matter what, but did you mean it? Did you really mean it? Did you mean no matter what?"
I don't know where the panic in her voice is coming from. There is worried excitement all over her face and maybe she knows what I know. Or maybe she's simply become that good at reading me.
Her voice goes quiet. "Edward, if you're having second thoughts, now would be the time to say something."
There are candles on the kitchen table. And Sinatra playing in the background. I refuse to take this from her. The happiness.
"Bella, I've never been more sure."
I leave her there in the kitchen and walk with heavy feet up the creaky stairs. The ones that are no longer endearing. Each mocking creak threatening to push me over the edge.
Sometimes I can pretend that nothing has changed. I'm in LA and she's in New York. Except when I pick up my phone to call her, I can't.
'No' is not an ambiguous word. She doesn't love me.
I petition the dean to take more classes than the unit limit will allow. I finish my undergrad degree a year early. Alice asks me what I'm trying to prove.
I start med school and I wonder what I'm doing. I wonder how this part of the plan is still mine when the rest of it is gone.
The first pediatric trauma unit was established at the Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn in 1962.
Injury is the number one cause of death in children over the age of one year.
From 1972-1992, the leading cause of death for children between the ages of one and nineteen was motor vehicle accidents.
These are the kinds of facts that run on loop in my head. These are the kinds of things I focus on. Dates and statistics. They are distractions. The best kind.
Bella didn't die in that car accident when she was nine. The one that she refuses to talk about. She's not that kind of statistic. But she's gone all the same. All I have left of her is a book about the loss of innocence, moral integrity and racial inequality. That's what I have. A book by Harper Lee. And a pile of paper memories.
I decided to be a doctor at an age when I had no business deciding anything. I was a child who wanted to be like his father. But I'm not in school for him. Not anymore. I'm doing it for her. I would never say it out loud. I would never admit it to anyone.
I sit in the library. In a brown leather chair. And I stare. Into nothing. Because without her all of this is meaningless.
I end up in the little room. The one that is now a baby's room. I should have told her before she got the room together. I should have said something. At first she didn't want to buy a crib, to decorate for a child who isn't ours yet. But it's one of the requirements to be approved. The room has to be ready. She sits in here sometimes, in the rocking chair in the corner, with a smile that makes everything seem possible.
I stand in front of the window. I don't know why I'm here. But I do know. Of course I know.
I've always been thorough. My entire life, I've always had a plan. I've watched the plan slip away. I've watched it crumble.
I've watched my plan, my life, become so much more than I ever thought it could be. We're getting married in a week. In one week she will be my wife. I should have looked into all of the details before agreeing to adopt. I should have protected her from the heartache.
I hear her footsteps, but I don't turn around. She wraps her arms around me, pressing the side of her face into my back.
I pull her around until she's facing me. I search her face for courage.
Her eyes are wide and anxious. "What is it?"
I want to tell her that it's nothing. I want to fix it. I refuse to let this be the end.
"Edward, what's wrong?"
"Don't lie to me." It stings. "Is it the photo? Was it too much? If you've changed your mind, you have to tell me."
"No, Bella. I haven't changed my mind." I close my eyes but it doesn't help. I can still see her face. "I made a few phone calls today. It appears that their adoption laws are pretty clear on some issues."
When she doesn't respond, I open my eyes. She is shaking her head. Her eyes already swimming with tears. I can't help but see the girl who couldn't cry.
"Bella, we have to be married and one of us has to be at least thirty five."
She stands in front of me. Just Bella. She doesn't want to believe me. Her chin quivers and it breaks me.
Her voice is shaking. "She'll be six years old by then."
"We'll fight it, Bella. Money talks. Especially to a country like that. I don't care what their laws say."
She lets go of me abruptly and falls into the chair in the corner of the room. She tucks her knees up and holds them tight against her.
I talk and I talk, promising her things that I have no business promising. As if I can will it all to be true.
"We're not buying a child, Edward. No."
"That's not what I'm saying!"
"My answer is no. She's not going to become our daughter that way. Not like that."
She looks up at me with absolute conviction in her eyes. "Not after everything you and I have been through. No."
I stand here. Like an idiot. She is the one to move. She is the one to pick herself up out of that chair. I think she is closing the space between us, but she's not. She's brushing past me. She's trying to get away from me. I reach for her. I refuse to let her walk away. I hold her to me. Tight and unyielding. She pushes against my chest. Let me go, let me go, let me go. But I won't. I can't.
But when she says it out loud, I release her. I close my eyes before I'm forced to watch her walk from the room.
My throat is thick. I try to swallow it down but it's not going anywhere. I'm angry at her for five seconds, but she's right. I'm my father. I'm trying to throw money around like a jackass.
I leave the dark room, the one filled with baby furniture, closing the door quietly on my way out. I stand there at the top of the stairs. And I refuse to believe that it could be over that quickly. I refuse to believe that her little face, her life, isn't meant for us.
I brush my teeth. I floss. Dental floss dangling from my fingertips, I stare at the trash can.
And I stare.
I am so blind. So unbelievably blind.
I throw the door to the bathroom open. She's not in our room. She's not sitting behind that closed door of the little room.
I take the stairs slowly, relentless creaking with each step.
And when I see her, I see her. I can't take my eyes off of her. She's on the couch curled up with the plaid blanket.
And I stare.
She holds my gaze. Her cheeks are splotchy. Her eyes are rimmed with tears. And they are begging me.
I stand in the middle of the room like a fool.
Until I'm not in the middle of the room anymore. Until I'm on the couch with her. And I'm pulling the blanket away. Staring.
She nods. Her eyes are pained.
I hold my hand out, trying to hold it steady but it is only shaking. I brush the fabric away, pressing my palm to her bare skin. My lungs are burning.
My hand stays, pressed against her warm stomach.
"Edward, say something."
But I can't speak.
The tears streak down her cheeks. Fast and delicate.
I force the words out. "Bella, why are you crying?"
"Because I want too many things. I want this." She covers my hand with both of hers. "But I still want her."
To Susan, thanks for being patient with my fondness for extra spaces. And thanks for trash cans. You're awesome.
To Grabadietcoke, thanks for sharing your story with me. You are an invaluable resource.
To Kim, thanks for loving this chapter. I forgive you for freaking Nic out about it.
I know the last chapter had a winding down quality to it and many of you thought it was the end, but we still have a handful of chapters to go. We're nearly to the part that inspired this whole story.
I hope all of my US readers had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am thankful for all of you beautiful readers and your lovely words. See you in a couple of weeks :)