"We need to talk."
Who says that on a date that seemed to be going so well? We were having a good time and he went off and ruined it…possibly.
Could this be a break up? How exactly do you break up with someone when they haven't even had a complete first date?
"What's that face for?" he asked, his features morphing into concern.
"My face?!" I laughed. "How do you expect me to look when we haven't even finished our first date and you're giving me the boot?" My words were crazed, but really, I had every right to be upset.
"What boot? No one's giving you the boot."
"Well you just don't tell someone 'we need to talk' without them thinking the worse. Those four words are like the kiss of death," I informed him.
"Okay, calm down." He put his hands up.
"Calm down he says," I muttered to myself. "You could have at least let me eat before you kicked me to the curb."
"Would you stop saying that?" he said.
"So then just say what it is that you need to say. It's obviously nothing good." I pushed my uneaten food away. Not only was it unappealing now, but I was afraid that if Edward angered me enough I'd throw it at him and there was nothing I hated more than wasted food.
"It's not great, but it's not that bad either. I'm just afraid of how you'll react," he began.
It was bad. It had to be. Why would he be so concerned with how I'd react if it was good news? Was he afraid that I'd jump into song and dance and embarrass him?
"Just say what you need to say."
He sighed and began rubbing his eyes. "I just think that if we're going to try…and do this," he began, motioning between us, "I want to know about your past. It's been a taboo subject, and I take full blame for that, but I think I should know. I don't want to be surprised by something that pops up in the future."
Well…that's not what I expected, and did he just say…
"Future. You see a future between us?" I asked, clearly surprised and based on his wide eyes, Edward was taken aback also. He was the one who said it, though.
"I don't know," he stuttered. "Maybe? I mean, it's always a possibility, right? Who knows what's going to happen." The more he explained the more he began tripping over his words. I would have felt sorry for him, but I was still more than annoyed at his approach to wanting to "know my past".
"Good to know," I said, letting him off the hook. He was like a drowning man that needed saving. "Anyway, that's all you wanted to talk about, my past?" I asked, just to be sure.
"For now, yeah."
"So why did you have that look on your face? Like you were going to apologize for kicking my puppy?"
"Well…because, I didn't know how you were going to react. I didn't want to offend you, but I think it's something that needs to be discussed."
"You could have picked a better time to ask," I said, pointedly looking at the untouched sandwiches, "but it doesn't bother me. You can pretty much ask me anything, but I draw the line at personal questions about my parents. Other than that, what do you want to know?" I finally took a bite of my sandwich. The topic of my homelessness wasn't something that I was hiding from Edward. It happened, and the past couldn't be changed, so there was no point acting like it didn't.
"I don't know – everything, nothing. How about I just ask questions as they come?"
"Sounds like a plan."
He looked contemplative, as if he was unsure which question to ask, or rephrasing them to make them less offensive sounding.
"Um…okay. Uh…where was the best and worst place that you've slept?"
"Hmm…that's actually a pretty tough question because the answers aren't black and white. The best place would have to be your apartment, but I don't think that's what you meant."
"I'm flattered, but I was thinking more along the lines of before my apartment." He shrugged and gave me an apologetic smile.
"Let's see. Sleeping in the streets, like on park benches or in alley ways, sucks, especially during cold and wet weather, though it's not so bad during the spring months. The stars at night provide a great distraction when you need to pass the time. Sleeping in temporary shelters had its ups and downs, too. Sometimes, I stayed with Jane at a friend of hers and that wasn't so bad as long as she was around. The real drawback to that, though, was that for the most part they were all druggies and I had to watch that I wasn't stuck with anything. Renting motel rooms was nice, but I wasted so much money that could have gone towards better things. If I had to choose, though, I'd say the motel rooms were the best and the shelters were the worst."
"Really?" Edward asked, his eyes widened in surprise. "You'd rather sleep on a bench than in the shelter?"
"Just because it's a shelter doesn't mean it's safe," I answered. "Sometimes the wide open is the best bet."
Edward's expression changed from mere curiosity to intense suspicion. I shifted my eyes, looking at anything but him. The topic of what may, or may not have happened, was something that no one, especially someone in a new relationship, would be ready to discuss. However, if he wanted to know about the tainted detail of my past, I'd tell him and let him decide where to go from here.
"What aren't you telling me?" he asked warily.
"I'm not keeping anything from you."
"Bella," he said sternly. "Tell me."
"Look," I sighed. "I'm not quite there yet, to easily talk about this stuff with you and be comfortable about it," I tried explaining.
"What, exactly, does that mean?"
"It means that I'm trying to get to that place where I don't blame myself for things that were beyond my control. You didn't like the way I handled the situation with E – the guy at the motel and I don't want this to be what puts us at odds again."
Edward quirked an eyebrow – he hadn't missed the almost slip of Eric's name. "I can respect that, I guess, and I hope that one day you'll tell me who E is."
I nodded. "I'm working on that, too."
He recovered a few seconds later, asking another question. "What was the hardest thing you had to do?"
I could answer easily. "Ask for money. You never feel truly poor until you willingly ask for a free handout."
"What about…you know…prostituting?" he asked, whispering the last word.
I shrugged. "I didn't like it, but it was a means to an end. The thing you have to understand, though, is that it was two people engaging in an act. It's hard to be judged for screwing someone in his car, when he's the one who paid to get screwed in his car. Begging, though? You're putting yourself out there to be ridiculed, put in the spotlight, and questioned. You're told that you're lazy or that you deserve to be where you're at, or refused money because you're just going to buy drugs or alcohol." I laughed humorlessly. "My clothes were dirty, hanging off my body in rags, my hair ratted and my skin was stained, so why would I want money for alcohol? People don't recognize hunger because they've never been hungry." I paused, contemplating all the times I was ignored or turned away. "And really, if I wanted a fucking beer, I think I deserved a fucking beer."
The silence that surrounded us after my rant sounded like nails on a chalkboard. It was uncomfortable and deafening. I began chewing on the sandwich that tasted like nothing, but I needed something to do. Across from me, Edward was picking on the crust of his bread, and tossed the crumbs to the side.
"I ruined this, didn't I?" I asked, breaking the silence. I grimaced at the forlorn expression on Edward's face.
"No, you didn't ruin it. Nothing is ruined. I was the one who wanted to talk about this."
"If you wanna…" He cut me off with his hand in the air.
"Hold on, I just want to say something," he began. With a deep breath and a hand through his hair he began speaking. "I just want to apologize. For every time I made you feel bad or made you feel like you were beneath me,or not as good as me. For every time I turned my back when you needed help. When I ridiculed you or made you feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed when all you wanted was someone to treat you as an equal. When, in fact, you're one of the best people I've ever met. You treat everyone with the utmost respect while someone in your position has every right to be wary of those around you."
"You know," I said and cleared my throat, hoping to dislodge the lump there, "you didn't have to apologize. I never really expected one."
"Why are you like this?" he asked irritated. "Why are you being so nice about it? Be angry, pissed off at the world – me."
"What's the point of being angry?" I asked. "I went through a period of anger, it was actually around the same time I met Jane. I was angry at everything and everyone. You know what it got me? My ass kicked. After a while, and Jane's help, I realized being mad wasn't getting me anywhere. It didn't make people more inclined to help me. I learned that it didn't matter what people thought of me. I couldn't change their minds or attitudes, and therefore, I expected less of them just like they expected nothing of me."
"So treat those how they treat you?" he interjected.
"No," I laughed. "Treat those how you want to be treated. If I treated you the way you treated me, I doubt we would be sitting here right now."
Guilt marred his flawless face, making me want to smack myself for such a thoughtless comment.
"I was an asshole, wasn't I?"
"Not as much as you think you were," I amended. He looked at me with a disbelieving smirk. "I'm serious! You offered me a job, a place to stay when-"
"That wasn't a completely altruistic offer," he interrupted.
"No, but it was still more than I ever expected. There was also the hospital," I said softly. His face turned red for an unexplained reason, and his hands balled into fist. I reached out hesitantly to relax one fist. I slipped my fingers through his when he finally let me. "You held my hand, I was so scared and in so much pain, and you were there. Saying you didn't like me would have been an understatement, but you came and you stayed during one of the few times I was really scared to be alone."
"But I still treated you like shit afterward."
"You were upset." I shrugged. "I understood, still do." I tried smiling at Edward, hoping to make him see that I wasn't upset and I didn't want him to be, either. I was all for leaving the past right where it was. However, Edward was content on stewing and I hated that this is where the date was headed.
"His name is Eric. Don't ask for any more information. The only reason why I even gave you that was to show you that things are getting better and will continue to get better, with due time, so there's no reason to be upset about things we can't change."
"Thank you," he said softly, squeezing my hand.
"I just want one – no, two things from you in return." I smiled mischievously.
"And what's that?" He was finally smiling.
"For one thing, I want to concentrate on the future, not the past. I want to make happy memories, not relive bad ones," I began.
"Sounds reasonable. What's the second thing?"
"I want a kiss."
The sterilized odor of the hospital was easily replaced with the smell of the best non-toxic paints I could find. Stiff drop cloths covered the tile floor while plastic sheeting protected the worn, but cared for children's furniture.
Getting the green light on my ideas was not as easy as I assumed it would be. Initially, the hospital wanted very juvenile murals decorating the halls. However, I felt that was unfair to the teenage patients that had to be put in the pediatric ward because they were under eighteen. Thankfully, we were able to come to an agreement that two walls could be "teen friendly. I decided to go with graffiti style writing, which turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. It definitely gave me a new found appreciation for graffiti artists that I didn't previously have. I completed those two walls first to give the board members the opportunity to get used to it before the ward was officially complete.
After two and a half weeks of working at the bakery, many therapy sessions, and working on the hospital walls, it felt like there was no end in sight. I appreciated it all, but I was tired and stressed out over trying to do the best I could with everything that was on my plate. I didn't want to disappoint anyone who depended on me to get something done to the best of my abilities, but I hadn't been so busy in such a long time. I had to relearn organization and time management.
Edward tried to help when he could. A few times he brought me lunch or dinner, and on particularly brutal days he rubbed my feet.
He and I were in a weird place. The date a few weeks ago had ended on a good note. Talks about my past were not brought up again and he did kiss me like I asked him. It was a careful, slow kiss at first with no tongue. It was…nice, but I wasn't exactly asking for nice. It didn't take much for him to give more, though. With only the slightest nip on his bottom lip, something seemed to set off a switch in his head. He began kissing me back harder, his hand finding its way into my hair. All I needed was to feel just the tip of his tongue on my top lip before I opened up fully to him. What started off cautiously, ended with both of us breaking away with a pant before one of us did something we would later regret.
Since the date we hung out when we could, but it wasn't much. More often than not, we sat snuggled together on the couch eating dinner and watching a movie. With both of our tight schedules, neither of us stayed up much later than midnight and even that was pushing it.
Despite it all, though, I didn't know what to call what we had. I didn't know if I could, or should, call him my boyfriend, or if what we had was something official. Though we didn't go out on another date, were we dating? We certainly weren't sleeping together, not even in the same room, so I couldn't call him a friend with benefits, but we were much more than that would suggest. I was nervous to broach the subject with him, so I just went with whatever we were doing.
Because I was working with a strict deadline and only had five more days to finish, Angela had agreed to give me three days off so I could dedicate the much needed hours to the hospital. Today was one of those days where I would literally be here all day. I hadn't seen Edward at all today; he was gone before I was even awake. I knew he had a major surgery scheduled today, so I wasn't surprised when I hadn't seen him as of yet.
The large clock on the wall read almost three o'clock. I had been here since nine and I was starving. Even though the area I was working in was closed off to the public, I still made sure to tuck away any supplies that would be in someone's way.
I waited for the elevator as I retied my hair that had fallen from the tie. I knew I looked like a mess, with paint stained skin, finger nails, and clothes, but most people who worked in the hospital knew who I was and didn't expect me to look so presentable. Even still, many of them smiled at me and commented how commendable it was that I was willing to work so long and hard for free. I always brushed off the compliment with polite dismissal, letting them know that it was something I enjoyed.
The elevator opened with a ding and I stepped inside without looking up as I dug into my pocket for my phone. Hopefully, Edward would be free for lunch. The elevator was huge and more than half full. I shot Edward a text, hoping but not expecting him to reply back. By the time I reached Edward's floor, I was the only one left. I was already in front of the door waiting for them to open when I wished they never had. Waiting to get on was Tanya and Edward himself. I stood there a second too long, not sure of what I should do as I stared at the both of them standing too close for my comfort. She looked positively delighted while he looked like he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Making up my mind, and my heart, I gave him a broken smile and moved to walk around them. I wouldn't give either of them the satisfaction of seeing me hurt or making an embarrassing scene. I could act just as careless as the next heartbroken girl.
"Bella. We were just about to meet you downstairs," Edward said as he grabbed my arm when I was about to pass him.
I was just about… The thing everyone says when they get caught in a lie and looking for a way out.
I was about to speak when Tanya opened her mouth. "Wait a second, I know you," she said in disbelief. "You're the maid!" She turned to Edward. "Your girlfriend is the maid?"
My jaw went slack. Not because she recognized me, but because she had called me his girlfriend. The only way she would have used that word was if Edward had used that word. Had Edward told Tanya I was his girlfriend?
"She's not the maid, Tanya," Edward corrected her in exasperation. "She was never the maid. I just told you that because-"
"So where are you going?" I asked, cutting him off. I didn't want him to explain anything to her. I may not have been pleased to see them together, but whatever we had was none of her business.
"Well, Edward here wanted me to meet his girlfriend before we went out for a late lunch," she answered with an evil smirk on her face.
"Oh." I nodded. "Well, it was nice running into you again, so I guess I'll let you two enjoy your lunch."
"God, Tanya," Edward groaned. Edward grabbed my face in his hands, bringing his lips softly to mine then mouthed his apologies. He pulled away, but linked his fingers with mine before turning back to an angry looking Tanya. "I didn't mean "we" as in you and I, I meant "we" as in her and I. You invited yourself."
"Don't be like that," she practically purred. "We have fun when we're together." I didn't miss the double meaning behind her words.
"No," he replied, drawing out the o. "You were convenient."
Tanya was undeterred as she laughed softly. "Either way, it was good."
"Look," I said, having had enough of the back and forth. I didn't want to hear about whatever they were or weren't. "I'm hungry and I have a lot of things I need to finish up. I have to go."
Edward didn't let me untangle my fingers from his, but held on tighter.
"I'm sorry," he apologized again. "Is the cafeteria okay for you today? I'm in between surgeries right now and I don't have much time."
"The cafeteria's fine." I smiled tightly at him. I wasn't mad at him, but at the situation forced upon me.
"Great. Let's go then," Tanya said with a bright smile. "They have amazing tomato soup."
"Awesome," I thought as I scowled at the floor.
"So what do you do if you're not the maid?" Tanya asked as she slurped her blood red soup. It amazed me how someone who looked so refined could eat soup like a beast. She scraped her plastic spoon against the Styrofoam cup, making an awful grating sound every time. She slurped and sucked her tongue every time she took a sip of the soup or water. More than once Edward had to pull me from my thoughts of how annoyingly she ate her food.
"I work at a bakery," I answered simply.
"And she paints," Edward added proudly…and way too quickly.
"Anything I've heard of?" She smiled as if she already knew the answer - like I was an amateur, a failure, a starving artist that would never make it in the world of famous painters.
"There's a piece titled The Calling," Edward answered for me. My head snapped to his quickly, surprised and a little perturbed that out of everything I had painted he knew that one. It wasn't my best known work, but was my best selling piece ever. It depicted a faceless, genderless figure burning in front of the Crucifix. It was painted using only black and white, except for the fire that shines with the brightest orange.
Did he feel that he had to brag about it? Was he trying to make me appear more impressive than I actually was?
"Never heard of it," she answered snidely.
"Ask your aunt Millie," Edward chuckled. "She's heard of it."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Tanya snapped. It was like watching a tennis match between two people that were playing with your equipment.
"I'm done," I said, standing up from the table. This was me taking my ball and going home. They were playing some sort of passive aggressive game that I wanted no part of.
I left the table, half expecting Edward to follow behind me. When I reached the elevator with no Edward in sight, I was resigned to believe that he stayed behind with her. I couldn't say that I was very surprised.
I was dead on my feet when I walked into Edward's apartment a quarter after nine. The day was long, but I got so much done. My feet ached, my back hurt, my head was pounding, and my stomach was killing me. I hadn't talked to or spoken to Edward since lunch and he hadn't reached out to me either. Thankfully, the ability to completely lose myself in work and forget the rest of the world didn't go away. It wasn't until I looked at the clock that I realized that I should stop working, and once I stopped working I realized how much my body protested every miniscule movement I made.
Without seeing if Edward was home, or getting something to eat, I walked straight to my room and flopped down on my bed.
"Hi," Edward called from the doorway. "I just ordered some Chinese; should be here in about half hour."
"We sure do eat a lot of Chinese food around here," I replied without looking at him.
"That it is." With way more strength than should have been needed, I managed to pull myself off the bed and walked to the bathroom. I passed Edward without saying a word. I washed my hands and headed towards the living room instead. Edward was already sitting on the couch so I choose the loveseat instead.
"You're mad at me," Edward stated.
I took a long look at him before replying. He looked tired, solemn. He looked like how I imagined I looked at the moment.
"No, not mad, but…are you ashamed of me?" It was a question that I never intended to ask him, but I couldn't help but wonder. It was the only reason I could logically think of to explain why he was so quick to answer Tanya during lunch. He had to give me merit, make my life seem better than it was – make himself feel better about calling a previously homeless chick his girlfriend.
"What?! No!" To his credit he looked bewildered, and maybe even a little hurt at my insinuation. "Why would you even think that?"
"Because I'm trying to come up with a reason why you were so eager to amp me up to Tanya. She didn't need to know anything about me, but you told her things to make me seem impressive. I was fine with her knowing that I only worked in a bakery."
"But you don't only work in a bakery," he argued.
"Yeah, actually, I do. Is that not good enough for you?"
"If I thought it wasn't good enough for me then I never would've even thought about you becoming more than a friend."
"Then break it down for me, Edward, because I'm having a hell of a time coming up with a conclusion all on my own. You can start with what you were doing with her in the first place?"
I wanted to take that question back as soon as I said it. I already sounded like a jealous girlfriend and we hadn't even touched on that little nugget from this afternoon. However, Edward didn't grimace at my slip up.
"Tanya is a pharmaceutical rep, so she actually visits the hospital about three or four times a month, but it varies. I hadn't seen her since that day she came to my apartment however many months ago. She waited for me in my office – I was in surgery – and asked me to a late lunch. I turned her down, telling her I still wasn't interested in seeing her anymore and that I already had a girlfriend." He motioned to me. "I said goodbye, but she followed me to the elevator and that's when you got there. Nothing more, nothing less."
"Okay," I said slowly, knowing that he wasn't lying. "How did you know about The Calling and what does it have to do with her aunt?"
Edward looked straight at me and unashamed when he answered. "I Googled you."
"You… Googled me?"
"Well not you as Bella, but you as in Isabella Swan, artist. I found an article about the piece and the buyer, who happens to be Tanya's aunt. She married rich and basically turned her back on the rest of the family, namely Tanya's mother, when they implied that she married for money. Millie – Mildred – is actually a lovely person, so of course she doesn't get along with the rest of the family."
"Pierce. Bert Pierce was the buyer."
"Yup, Herbert and Mildred Pierce. Tanya's aunt and uncle."
"Huh. Small world."
"Bella, honestly, I'm just proud of you and everything you've accomplished. I guess I went about it the wrong way, but I really didn't mean anything by it. If I'm guilty of anything, it's rubbing the information of her aunt in her face. It just pissed me off that she tried to lessen your talent."
"I could've defended myself."
"I know, but would you have?" he asked, an eyebrow quirked.
I shrugged. "Probably not the way you did. I just…don't care what she thinks of me. As long as the people I care about think well of me, then I'm okay with what people like her think. What you're failing to remember is that I went a long time with people thinking the absolute worse of me – with good reason. It doesn't faze me now," I explained.
"You're a better person than me, I guess."
"Nah," I disagreed. "Can I ask you something, though?"
"Did you…uh…really refer to me as your girlfriend?" I asked, embarrassed that I needed clarification.
"Yes. Are you not?" His eyebrows furrowed and his face scrunched in adorable confusion.
"I want to be," I assured him, "but we never really discussed titles so I didn't want to assume that I was, or that you were my boyfriend. I wasn't even sure what we were," I rambled.
"It's settled then. So, does my girlfriend want to sit next to me instead of way over there? I kinda got used to you being so close and all this extra space sucks."
With hot cheeks and a shy smile, I made my way over to Edward and sat next to him. He grabbed my wrist and placed a kiss on the palm of my hand.
"I do want to ask you one more thing," he spoke. "The hospital is having a small party to celebrate the new pediatric ward. Would you like to be my date? I think it'd be pretty cool having the girl who brought it to life on my arm." He smirked.
"I better be your date," I said, poking him in the ribs. "And I'm not the one who brought it to life. That, Edward, was your doing. Seriously, though, I'd love to."
"Great! I already know that I'll have the hottest date there," he said, sounding every bit the cocky guy that I knew.
"You think I'm hot?" I teased.
It was amazing how Edward and I were able to get where we are from where we were. If this was months, or even weeks ago, I would have never even dreamed of asking if he thought I was hot. Then again, he probably would have never admitted that piece of information..
While the teasing and joking was all well and good, it was scary to know, and not be able to admit, that I was falling in love with him. I've cared for Edward for awhile now – loved even – but being in love was something new, foreign, and completely frightening.
Having Edward love me back was something I hoped for, but didn't exactly expect.
AN: Beta'd by le wonderful SereneinNC.
Yes, this is extremely late, but no one wants to hear it more than I want to say it.