My friend Victoria was 38. She used to be my boss at my previous work and she had always been a striking example of a self-made, successful woman who knew what she wanted and believed the ends justified the means. When the scary number 40 started looming on her horizon, she decided to take her personal life into her own hands. Literally. Desperate times called for desperate measures. After the deliberate selection, she had found a man who was deserving and willing to become a biological father of her child. That's how baby Riley was born.
We had dinner at an overpriced swanky vegan restaurant together—me, Victoria, and baby Riley, who turned one year old last week. She told me how hard is was being a working single mom but how it was worth it; how much joy it was having a baby, how good it felt to be loved unconditionally for the first time in her life. How supportive Riley's father was even if he had his own family and kids.
When I returned home, I thought that maybe it wasn't the worse option. Maybe it could work for me, too. The question was, how long should I have to wait before giving up on the idea of a two-parent family? And damn it if this didn't make me panic because I was turning thirty next week. My time was running out.
I was staring at Edward's muscular back as he stood by the kitchen counter, cutting bagels into perfectly even halves and spreading cream cheese with such thoroughness as if it was a work of art. I wondered what he would say if I asked him to... err... donate reproduction material. He'd probably have a stroke.
"It's my birthday next Tuesday. I'm going to have dinner with my friends. Will you join us?" I asked him instead.
He turned and I noticed a vein on his forehead that only became prominent when we had sex and he was holding back. But we weren't having sex right now. We were talking. What was so straining about that?
"Um... I'd like to, but I'll probably be working late." He rested his hands on the countertop behind him, gripping onto its edge. The tension had been hanging in the air since the moment I crossed the threshold of his apartment yesterday. I hoped it wasn't because of the stunt I pulled last Friday. In hindsight, I regretted being so harsh—what was I thinking? I could have so easily lost him.
"It's okay," I said. Actually, it was Alice's idea to invite him—she was still determined to make our relationship normal. Not that I didn't want him to come to my birthday party, but I had simply grown tired of cherishing hopes that appeared to be vain. "You don't need to arrive at the beginning. The cake won't be served until ten or so." I winked.
He chuckled. "With thirty candles?"
"Awful," I muttered under my breath.
"Not at all. Welcome to the major league, baby."
I wrapped my arms around his neck, searching his eyes. "Come to support me. Please."
"I'll try to. I'm not making promises, but I'll try to. And if I fail, I'll make good next Friday. Okay?"
I gave a slight nod. Either way, I decided I would have fun on my own fucking birthday. I'd had twenty-nine birthdays without him and one more would make no difference.
Tuesday started with a call from my mom. She wished me all the best, made me promise her to go to a church, and inquired how my internet relationship with Alessandro was going. Dang. I mumbled something about how busy we both had been recently; thankfully, Salvatore asked her to give him the phone. As soon as we hung up, Dad called, then Alice, and Jacob. My phone kept ringing all the way to work.
Edward didn't call me. Instead, when I came into the office, I was hand delivered white roses and lilies with a box of Godiva chocolates and a card saying Happy birthday, beautiful!
Someone should have warned him I'm allergic to lilies.
I had a few attacks of nerves during the day but I refused to succumb to them. I was not sixteen—I was thirty for crying out loud. And it was right about time to get a grip on myself and learn how to separate hopes from illusions.
My friends had booked a table at a small and cozy cafe in Greenwich Village. The round table was decorated with candles and flowers; it was big enough to sit another person had he arrived. Since it had been a surprise location, I texted Edward its name and address. He didn't reply.
At eight, when our main course had been served, I decided the elephant in the room was too big to be ignored.
"Okay, guys," I said. "He won't come, alright? He's busy tonight."
Jasper cast his eyes away as if I had said something obscene; Alice stopped chewing, watching me warily; and Jacob leaned in and kissed my cheek. "Bells, honestly, I'm not missing this guy and his creepy looks."
"You don't have to like him." I gulped down my champagne. "It's okay. It's just... I don't want to hear any of you talking about him as if you know him. What happens between us stays between us. I'm fed up with you telling me what to do about it. Okay, Alice?"
She nodded, pursing her lips. "If you want me to mind my own business, I get that, Bella," she said softly. "It's your life after all."
"Exactly." I took a deep breath. "I love you all. You are my family. The best family I could ever imagine possible. Thank you. Thank you for everything you've been doing to me. For this." I waved around the room, tears suddenly prickling at my eyes. "You're amazing. Thank you so much. And please don't judge me. Please."
"Look at our girl." Jasper grinned, reaching out to wipe away a tear that started rolling down my cheek. "All grown-up and mature. I'm proud of you. All you need is just a little bit of luck. I have a toast. To luck!"
We raised glasses and clinked, and a piano man started playing Happy Birthday To You for a hundredth time, and we laughed, and the tears were forgotten and so was the elephant.
A big Belgian Chocolate cake was served at ten sharp. It was sinfully delicious, rich and silky. Almost better than sex. I feasted on it, unable to stop until there was nothing left and I felt like I weighed 500 pounds.
We were driving home with Jake. I was tired and sleepy, so I rested my head on his shoulder and sighed.
"Do you want to continue to party?" he asked. "I have a bottle of Stoli. We could sit in your kitchen and drink all night like in good old times."
I yawned. "Nah, I'm too old for all-nighters. I have work tomorrow. Responsibilities suck."
"They do." He ruffled up my hair. "I just mean, if you don't want to be alone tonight, I could stay with you."
"Ooh, aren't you sweet?" I cooed. "Thank you. I'm fine. I really am."
I entered my dark apartment, switched on the lights in the hall, and placed my keys on the rack. It was so quiet that suddenly my heart clenched in my chest. It felt like loneliness was seeping from every corner, threatening to suffocate me.
"Fuck you," I spat out, not sure who exactly I was addressing. "Fucking fuck you!"
"Meow." Mr. Puss rubbed against the bedroom door frame, looking at me with wide eyes. He probably thought I was crazy. Rightfully so.
"Poor baby. Did I wake you? Mommy is a nutcase tonight. Ah, to hell with it. I'm going to bed." Damn it, I was talking to my cat. What next? House plants?
I pulled on my comfiest soft flannel pajamas with Disney's Tigger on the front and quickly brushed my teeth, snuggling into my bed. It was not a bad day, yet I was glad it was finally over.
Soon I was fast asleep just to be rudely awakened by the noise. At first I thought I was still dreaming because it seemed someone had been calling my name. Not someone. Edward.
I practically jumped from the bed and sprinted to the window, tripping on my way.
He stood right in the middle of the dark street, staring at my window. When I pulled the window open and leaned out of it, he started waving frantically. "Bella!"
I must have been dreaming, after all, because he never called me Bella. "What are you doing here?"
"It's your birthday! I couldn't miss it! Happy birthday!" He swayed. My God, he was so stinking drunk. And he wasn't used to drinking liquor—control was his element and he didn't feel comfortable losing it. I even doubted he kept anything stronger than wine at home. What the hell happened today, or rather, yesterday?
"Shut the fuck up," I hissed. "You'll wake the neighbors. Come up here."
I flicked on the lights in the hall and unlocked the door. My brain was still half asleep, not fully capable of analyzing the situation, yet my heart was beating frantically in my chest. Finally, I heard the unsteady steps.
He placed his hands on both sides of the doorway, probably having trouble standing up straight, and grinned foolishly as he took me in. "Hello, Tiger."
"It's Tigger," I said.
He snorted and only then did I notice his lip was busted and swollen, his nose was bruised, and his clothes badly crumpled. His shirt was sticking out of his pants, small dark stains frighteningly prominent on the white fabric; I only hoped it wasn't blood. Either way, he looked scary.
"What happened?" I asked in a small voice.
"Rough day." He pushed himself off the doorway and shut the door behind him with his foot. "Thank God it's over." The strong smell of whiskey reached me before he did.
He closed the remaining distance between us and raised his hand in an abrupt movement. I flinched.
"Don't." He wrapped his arms tight around me; albeit drunk, he was still so strong. "Bella... Bellissima... Why do you always shy away from me? Why don't you let me in?"
His drunken blabbering made absolutely no sense. I made an attempt to push him away. "Let me attend to your wounds. It looks like your nose will be the size of California tomorrow."
He sighed and stepped back, letting me lead him to the living room. I made him sit on the couch and went to the kitchen. There was a half-full bottle of vodka in the fridge; I poured some on a clean cloth. When I returned, he had taken off his shoes and jacket and lay back, resting his head against the cushions.
"The room is spinning," he moaned.
"Sorry about that." I sat down next to him. "Now, I'm afraid this is going to sting."
His whole body jerked and his eyes flew open when I carefully touched his broken lip with the alcohol-soaked cloth.
"Shhh. I need to make sure it's clean. Here. Okay." I finished with his lip and proceeded to his nose. "Better. I'll bring the ice."
"How about some milk and cookies?" He giggled.
"You wish." The irony of the situation didn't escape me.
I didn't have an ice pack so I simply put a few ice cubes into a plastic bag and wrapped a dish towel over it. He suffered stoically, silently watching me this time; only his breath hitched as I moved my hand. When the ice melted, I glanced at the clock. Two thirty. I had four hours of sleep left.
I stood up and went to the closet, retrieved an extra pillow and a blanket and tucked him in, hoping he wouldn't throw up on my couch, and then made him swallow two Tylenol and a glass of water. "Alright, I'm going to bed."
"Will you kiss me goodnight?"
I deliberated for a moment, then leaned and pressed my lips to his forehead—the only unharmed part of his face. "Night."
He closed his eyes with a content sigh. "You make it go away."
"What are you talking about?" I asked in confusion, but he was asleep already.
The rest of the night was uneasy. I couldn't get a wink of sleep, worrying about the man in my living room. I should have taken him to a hospital—what if his nose was broken and he would start suffocating and I wouldn't hear?
At six, half an hour before the alarm, I gave up and tiptoed to the living room. He was seemingly fine—his breathing was even and his bruises weren't too prominent in the dark—so I decided I could finally relax and go have a shower.
Hot water made my muscles less rigid, but my head was still swimming after a sleepless night. I proceeded to the kitchen and opened the fridge just to realize I wasn't hungry at all. I put on the coffee and went to my bedroom to get ready for the day. Thank God for the killer foundation that helped me hide awful circles under my eyes.
It was still early but I decided it was right about time to wake him. I grabbed my cup of coffee, opened the living room door, and switched on the overhead lights.
He groaned, opening his eyes. Despite my earlier effort, his lip was badly swollen and the bridge of his nose looked purplish. Plus, his eyes were red and puffy from both too much alcohol and sleeping with his contacts on.
"Good morning," I said wryly.
He groaned again, sitting up slowly. "Can I beg for some mercy?"
"Why? At least you have managed to get some sleep," I pointed out, giving him an icy stare. Even when he looked like shit, he was still gorgeous. Tough and gorgeous.
"It's not enough. I could use an explanation why you showed up here, totally smashed, at two AM on my fucking birthday."
He cast his eyes down, wincing as he attempted to rub his face. I took a long gulp of my coffee.
"September 13," he finally said.
"So what?" I was so annoyed with him talking in riddles.
His red-rimmed eyes met mine. "My father died on September 13 five years ago. Have I told you I didn't go to the funeral?"
My heart sank; I gaped at him, suddenly unable to move.
"Well, I didn't."
"I'm so sorry," I managed. "But you could have told me... You should have. I'd understand." My knees buckled; I put my cup on a coffee table and sat down on the couch next to him. Coincidences accompanied us from the very beginning—how come that was even surprising?
He chuckled dryly. "I didn't want to spoil this day for you with my sulks."
"Why, thank you," I muttered. "That's truly thoughtful. So you pull this stunt each year? Way to show your respect to his memory by getting into barroom brawls."
He winced. "Please. I feel bad enough without your biting comments."
"Will you tell me what happened yesterday?"
"I don't remember the details, but there was nothing to be proud of. I was at a bar and at some point they stopped serving me, which pissed me off. I assaulted someone who tried to calm me down and the bouncer kicked me out. The rest is history."
"By the way, you should see a doctor about your nose."
He ran his index finger up and down his nose, hissing. "It's not broken."
"Okay, Mr. Know-it-all. It's your nose for God's sake," I said calmly.
He dug into his pocket, retrieving his phone. "Dead. Shit. I have a meeting... How am I supposed to cancel it now? Fuck."
I frowned. "I can offer you my charger but I'm leaving for work in ten minutes."
"Please." He handed me his dead phone. I plugged it in the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of mineral water and two more Tylenol.
"Thank you." He drank the water greedily, then laced up his shoes and awkwardly stood up. "May I use the bathroom?"
I nodded. "Make yourself at home."
He staggered out and I heard him curse—he must have passed by the mirror in the hall.
I finished my coffee and turned on the faucet in the kitchen to rinse the cup. The whirling of water in the sink made me fall into a strange trance; a deep sigh behind my back made me jump. When I turned, he cast his eyes down. He looked beaten, but then again, he had been beaten.
"Go home and soak in a hot bath," I said. "Oh, and I have something for you." I brushed past him and returned with my concealer. "It will take ages for your bruises to fade so you're going to need this. It works magic."
"Thank you." He smiled, bringing his hand to graze my cheek. "Why are you so kind to me?"
I covered his hand with mine, leaning into it. Somehow I couldn't be angry with him anymore.
"I owe you a birthday present." He was looking into my eyes in that way which made me weak and his.
"You don't owe me anything."
He ignored my remark. "The thing is, I planned for us to go shopping together and have you choose whatever you want... Not with my face looking like this, obviously—even I wouldn't go shopping with me now. I'm so sorry for being such a fail." He sighed. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, isn't it?"
"I need to tell you something important," I said.
He raised his brow.
"I'm allergic to lilies."
He was healing quickly. When I came to visit him Friday, only a small scar on his upper lip and a band-aid on the bridge of his nose reminded of the incident. Neither of us brought it up again; we just cuddled up on the couch and watched the re-runs of Friends.
Saturday I went to New Jersey. On the train, I concocted a story how my mythical boyfriend had fallen ill and how sorry he was not to be able to attend my family get together. Luckily, they didn't inquire about him at all this time. Even Leah didn't.
"Would you read for the girls?" she asked me as it was time for them to have a nap. "They love it when you do."
"Sure." I smiled. "What do you want to hear today, young ladies?"
"A story about a Princess," Rachel said.
"And a Prince Charming," Rebecca added. "When I grow up, I will marry Prince Charming," she said with an absolute certainty.
"No, I will marry him! I will!" Rachel smacked her sister with a pillow and they started fighting.
"Stop it!" I laughed. "This argument is pointless. Prince Charming only exists in the fairy tales. He isn't real."
"He is." Rachel sat back. "His name is Edward."
My mouth fell open and my eyes popped out of their sockets. Well, at least that was how it felt. "What?"
Leah snorted behind my back. "Enchanted is their favorite movie. They have seen it at least five hundred times."
"Oh," I said, recovering from the shock.
"Here." Leah handed me a colorful book. "You can read them Sleeping Beauty. Anything starring Prince Charming will do. Sometimes I wonder whose kids they are."
I shook my head. Her allusion didn't escape me—I used to be the last and most pathetic dreamer on earth. When I was seventeen, I still believed in Prince Charming. When I was twenty-four, I grew tired of waiting for him and tried to settle for less. Now that I was thirty, I knew for sure he didn't exist.
But how could I explain this to the four-year-old girls? Did I have the right to tell them that happily-ever-afters didn't always happen in real life?
So I just opened the book and began to read.
"Once upon a time there was a Queen who had a beautiful baby daughter..."
Looks like we are getting somewhere. Thank you for being patient with these two.
Katie1824, thank you for the love! XO
I'm LuckyStar815 on Twitter.