The thing of it is, I was happy with my life. I'd realized it was a small life, but I'd really been raised to believe those were the best kind. A small life was a controllable life, and even then, even then it could beat the snot out of you so badly you could almost never recover.
I was contented. I was grieving. But I was used to the comfort of my sadness. I didn't know this at the time. At the time I thought I was fine existing on a low level of energy. It was a steady low-level of energy, just enough to get me through, but I'd pulled the plug on nearly everything that made me uncomfortable. I knew how to conserve, and look stable to my tiny non-judgmental cluster of friends and kind-of friends. They'd known me for so long, their expectations had given way to who I really was, and somehow it was enough.
I was kind of like a floor lamp in the room, there, with just enough light to keep myself from being thrown away. Combined with shinier friends like Rose, and Alice, I almost looked like I contributed something.
Then shortly after my father Charlie died, Alice's dad, who lived across the street, died. Alice, an only child, decided to sell the place, as she lived an hour away in the city. And the place was in sore need of repairs. So she gave the buyer's agent a good deal, and it sat there staring at me, abandoned, each window like a dead eye, until the new owner, a Mr. Edward Cullen, showed up. Or I should say his team showed. I'd feared he'd turn it into something ostentatious that would make my own home look like a misplaced tool-shed. But he restored the place tastefully, modernizing with regard to the rest of the neighborhood, keeping to the bones, but dressing it with newer, larger windows, a new roof, new landscaping, new doors. It was Botox, not a facelift.
And so he moved in. Modern furniture, an occasional antique. Alice couldn't tell me much. He was single. Paid cash. Didn't argue the price. He was from Chicago. Made a lot of money in the gold rush days of the cell phone business. He was out of that and very diversified in business. Oh, and thirty-two.
Gay? I mean, I did wonder. Until the blonde showed up. And the redhead. Not gay.
Not that I cared. I wasn't spying on him, but I am an avid gardener, and I do care who is living right across the street from me.
And those big windows of his, now what was there to see? My poor house, my yard, my sanctuary.
I feel like I'm trapped in his microscope now, so this staring-fest goes two ways, not that I have evidence. Not that I'm staring in an obvious way. But I'm interested in him. And I'm mad at him. All the construction, the trucks. And me feeling differently about everything, wondering where my twenties went. A long decade of mistakes and hard work. And he and his friends are like, living it up, right in my face, and it used to be quiet here, peaceful, private.
I haven't mentioned his appearance. It's ridiculous. I'm looking for the flaw, something so I can let go of this dumb preoccupation. He can't be this perfect. I need something to hold onto as a base point for reality, something I can remember when this emotion overtakes me, this regret. I hate how he makes me feel. I hate that he's moved here. I'm furious with Alice. I told her not to sell the first year but to let the dust settle. But her parents hadn't been happy. She says my house is her home. Rose feels the same, not that they've come in a while, both so busy, so successful.
Well, I haven't introduced myself. I tried to wave once, while watering my lawn, when he pulled up, but he hurries into the house, he doesn't look my way at all. So I won't embarrass myself again. I really don't want to be bothered. I don't want to know him. My privacy is everything to me. I need to be left alone when I'm home. All day long I have to talk to people. But not here. Here I seal my voice in a jar and work with my hands. He's ruined everything. But the cats. I still have them.
It's red-hot July when I'm talking to Rose. She's shifting around her apartment. I hear her kick off her shoes, plunk ice into a glass, crack open a cap on a bottle. Rose never does one thing at a time. She's perpetual motion and production. I know that once she drinks the whatever, I'll hear the toilet flush.
"So how's the hot reincarnation of Alice's dad?" Rose and Alice have never called more frequently than they do now.
"Edward," I remind her.
She repeats the name like they're having sex.
"Rose, if you want your update, stop that."
"Did you go over there yet?"
Oh, the conversations we've had. We've gone through all the scenarios of me leaving the lights on and doing obscene things, me knocking on his door wearing something sexy, big elaborate plans all of which culminate in his eager seduction. We've talked this thing to death, but not really.
"I have to get to Forks, Bella. But with the schedule I'm on, I know I won't make it this month." Yes, she won't make it. Not with the off chance of running into her fresh break-up McCarty.
It was the same for Alice. Jasper Whitlock, or jilted Jasper as we called him, had been moping around for years. She seldom showed her face around Forks. But me, I had to live here with the two of them, McCarty and Whitlock. I was a sore, an open wound who drifted into their fields of vision to torment them. They'd been my friends and now…it was all crap.
Back to Rose. She said, "I know the new hot guy hasn't noticed you, Bella. You dress like a pioneer when you work in the yard. Any other time it's the repressed librarian. That's your trajectory: Pioneer on the left, repressed librarian on the right."
I try to remind her about my allergies to many plants and even the sun. I've always been very pale. The sun poisons my skin and gives me a rash. And almost any plant that touches my arms gives me welts. I love to garden, but a big floppy hat, and long sleeves are a must.
"Okay, Bubble-girl, but Laura Ingalls is known for her writing, not her wardrobe," Rose says tiredly. Then the toilet flushes.
"I'm gonna go," I say. I'm used to her calling me a repressed librarian, but a pioneer kind of hurts.
"I just did," she laughs.
I click off my cell and lay it on the sill. Then I stare out the window. He's just come out his front door. His hair is reddish, longish. A strong face, easy to see from across the street. I haven't viewed him up close, but I get the full picture. He's tall. I like his frame. I work in a college library. I see young guys all the time. All kinds of guys. Handsome doesn't move me. I'm practically dead. Just ask Rose and Alice. They marvel all of the time. But this man, this Edward, he's just very compelling.
And I will never, ever share that. I will joke and smile, and admit he's striking, but I will never, ever admit how deeply moved I feel if I even catch a glimpse of him. Not even to myself.
I do admire his walk, kind of graceful and full of energy. I like long thighs on a man, I didn't really realize that until this moment. His jeans are not from Forks Rural Supply. They are amazing.
I slap my hands together. He is crossing the street. He cannot be coming to my house! And yet his loose, graceful gait is directed toward me. His white button down shirt is open over a white T-shirt. It moves around him as he walks. He's looking at my house. I don't have the light on, but for a moment it seems he is looking straight at me. I run into the hall and stare at my closed front door. In seconds I hear his tread on the wooden porch. Then he knocks loudly.
I am frozen for a moment, but a second round of purposeful raps snaps me to. I've just gotten off of work. I'm in my blue short-sleeved blouse, and my slip. Yes, I wear a full slip with certain skirts, just like Natalie Wood. This particular slip was my mother's. She was small, like me. I love the feel of silk against my thighs. Sue me.
And I'm bare-footed. My toes are painted a pale pink. I won't answer. I don't owe him anything. He can't just drop in like this. A third round of knocking propels me to action. I put my hand on the door knob, withdraw it, grip it once more with purpose. I crack the door and peek out. He has the greenest eyes I've ever seen. Because I have never noticed anyone's green eyes before. I've seen a nice blue pair once, but the color of someone's eyes is lost on me.
However, I cannot hold his gaze. Not if this exchange will require the use of my voice. He's wearing brown leather slip on shoes. I love them.
"Miss Swan?" he says, a little thrown, it seems, as I'm just peeking out the crack I've made by holding the door open the smallest bit.
"Yes. I…I'm Miss Swan…I mean Bella." I suck some air in through my open mouth because my chest seems to have lost all ability to expand.
"Wow, you're much younger than I realized. I may have to kill Emmet McCarty. I pictured a widow or something…" One hand is on his hip, holding a ring of silver keys, but with the other he pulls on his hair. It's great hair, and I think he should be more careful with it. He wouldn't want to lose it unduly. And did he say Emmet McCarty, really?
"Oh man, are you a widow?" Then quickly he follows that with, "That was rude."
His rambling gives me some kind of clarity. I widen the crack another 1.4 inches or something. My heavy hair is hanging over my shoulder. Between the hair and the door, I'm feeling comforted. I don't intend to answer the widow-question. "Can I help you with something?" I also won't admit I know his name. How does he know mine?
His eyes follow the length of my hair. I'm self-conscious now. I run my hand over its length and hold it away from my face. This also comforts me. If anything can.
His green eyes flick from my hand to my eyes, several times. He licks his lips, and rattles his keys before tucking them back into his waist.
"I…I'm having a problem with some cats. Someone told me you had cats."
"Oh, sure. That would be McCarty," I say weakly. McCarty calls me Catwoman. At least he has for years. Now that he and Rose are broken…he probably calls me other things. And he's talked to this guy, Edward. Great.
Cullen shrugs, smiles. His jaw is more sculpted than any other. I shall see all men's faces as somehow weak in comparison. I try not to go too deeply into my observations, as he is requiring a response about the cats. But his voice is lovely, even now when he's a bit intense.
"I don't want to get off on a bad foot complaining, but they are crapping in my flowers, and they are shredding one of my patio chairs, and this morning, I leave the back door open and this one comes in carrying a bird in his mouth. I feed the birds. I like birds. I hate these damn cats. Ma'am. Miss." He is brutalizing his hair. He turns quickly and looks across the street at his house, blows out a breath and turns toward me. His clean smell hits me. I widen the door another inch. More even. I am leaning on it, but his eyes dart to the floor, and I realize he can see the line of my body, and one foot. I pull behind the door again. He's seen the light pink slip, and light pink toes. And he's threatening my cats, I don't care how unbelievably handsome he is, or how green his eyes are, or how beautiful the jaw, the lips, and the hair, the height and the general way he's put together, no one threatens my cats.
"If you'll allow me a minute, I would like to explain something about the cats," I say, finding my librarian's voice at last. He sobers a bit, taking note of my tone. His eyes travel my length once more. I don't think he's admiring the row of tucks along the front of my blue blouse, or the two inches of lace at my hem, or my talent with the toe nail polish brush. But he sure is looking. He turns away again and lets out a breath and I don't know what all of that huffing and puffing means. I push the door closed and run to the kitchen chair to retrieve my light gray pleated skirt. I shimmy into it and zip it up the back. I straighten my blouse, smooth over my hair, stick my feet into my black ballet flats that sit by the door. I take a quick cleansing breath, push my oldest cat Cottonball aside with my foot as this would hardly be the time for her to accompany me out the door, and I meet Mr. Edward Cullen on my front porch.
He turns toward me. I have never felt so small beside a man. What I lack in stature I make up for with an uncrackable professional demeanor. But here, on my porch, I'm just short.
His gaze is hard to hold. But I make myself breathe slowly, and I meet his gaze. "I didn't catch your name," I lie.
"Edward Cullen," he answers, shifting his keys to his left hand, and taking the hand I've extended. When I touch him, I have to renegotiate the slow breathing. I pull my hand away quickly. I'm embarrassed that I've been spastic, but I refuse to dwell on it.
"About the cats," I look down. "Most of these are neighbors. This street is their home. They live in the woods behind our houses, and they depend upon our kindness. This is an older neighborhood. As people have passed, cats have been left behind. Often, they're too old to move on. So we have several generations, at all times. We all feed them, the half a dozen of us that are up and down this road. It's just understood. I actually own two of them. Mine are spayed. They're family. They're all family."
I held his gaze. I loved the cats, McCarty be damned.
"They're wild," he said, bending toward me slightly, squinting his eyes like I'm the sun.
"No. They're connected to us. Very friendly."
"They have diseases. It's inhumane. Isn't there an animal control officer in Forks?"
I'm not liking him as much now. I can see he might be a strong opponent if he was inclined.
I stand a bit straighter, shifting my feet. He shifts just a bit so we're aligned with one another. "There is a police department. And they do the job of animal control officers." It used to be my dad, but I don't tell him that.
"I'm not going to endure destruction of property. I also maintain the right to leave my door open." His eyes are smiling, but his lips are set.
"So what are you saying?" I fold my arms and lift my chin.
"I thought I was clear." He angles himself a bit closer, tilting his head, like I'm a naughty girl or something.
"I'm not stupid, Mr. Cullen. You don't have to talk down to me."
He lightly touches my arm, "I didn't mean to."
I step back. "You can't just move in here and change everything."
"I am a property owner, Miss Swan." His voice is indulgent. It ticks me off.
"Not stupid again, Cullen. I saw the 'sold' sign. As a matter of fact, Alice is like a sister to me. That house has had one owner for my entire life. Until you. So I noticed the change."
"I've seen you notice," he lifts one brow. "I just thought you were older. A lonely cat lady."
"Yes, I've heard McCarty's routine for years." Lonely catwoman librarian.
No wonder Rose broke up with the ass.
"I mean no disrespect. You're hardly what I expected, is what I'm saying."
"I don't know what that has to do with anything…"
He ignores me and continues, "I should think that my careful restoration of the house would be something to celebrate in a neighborhood as run down as this. I've upped the property values of every cat lover in this neighborhood." Now his lips are smiling, but his eyes are not.
"We should have a ring-kissing neighborhood bar-be-que."
He blurts a laugh. "I'll bring the cat-steaks."
"So not funny."
His eyes drag all over me quickly and he sucks in a big breath.
"Wow, this isn't getting us anywhere. I just wanted to give you a heads up. I'm calling the police about the cats. Be sure and keep yours inside." He smiles. "I hope this won't cause any ill will between us."
I shake my head as I glare at him. "Really?" I point to the street the separates our houses, "ill-will."
"Oh come on, Miss Swan. More like the road that's paved with good intentions...that's like the road to hell though, right? Look, I'm a fair guy. This needed to be taken care of a long time ago. What do you expect me to do, live under a cat-siege?" He steps down my three porch stairs, and I hold my position on the porch.
He turns back to me. "I'm going to alert the police to the problem and they can help decide how to deal with it. It's not humane to let them live like this."
"It's humane to destroy them?"
"I just wanted to see if they belonged to you and give you a heads up."
He walks quickly away then, all the way across the street. He gets into his car, shoots me one sheepish look and pulls off.
"You jerk," I whisper. My father had been the chief of police when he'd gotten the cancer that would eventually kill him. Edward Cullen has no idea who he's messing with.