Just blocks away from Bella's house, Livvy strapped in her seat, I'm still not sure about this. When my mom called to tell me that my dad had scheduled a last minute client dinner and that she was unable to watch Liv, I called Bella right away to cancel.
"Can we do this another time?" I asked.
"Edward, my mom has been planning this dinner for two days. Just bring Livvy with you."
"Don't worry. My parents are cool."
"Where do you think I get it?" I heard the smile in her voice, the confidence. "They're open-minded people. My mom'll love her."
As I find their address and pull up along the curb, something is eating at me. I try to shake it off. Bella accepted Livvy easily, I remind myself. I need to trust her.
Their house is small: a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and I'd guess two bedrooms and two baths. But it's across the street from beachfront property, so it's far from cheap.
Bella meets us out front, greeting me with a smile and a kiss, before bending down to hug Liv tight. "Come on in," she says, opening the door.
I'm introduced to Bella's parents. When I shake their hands, Charlie holds my gaze, but Renee's eyes seem stuck to my chin.
"Thank you for having us both," I say. "At the last minute."
Without a word, Renee steps aside. She gives a wide-armed gesture for us to have a seat in the living room.
Livvy stumbles along behind me, holding onto my thigh. I feel her fingers digging.
A narrow bookshelf bulging with books stands tall against the wall behind the sofa. On the adjoining wall sits a desk holding more books, some picture frames, a vase, what looks like mail, and other odds and ends. There's too much on its surface for it to be used as a desk. With all the stuff they've crammed in here, the room appears even smaller than it is.
"Say hi to Mr. and Mrs. Swan, Liv." I reach back, trying to untangle Livvy from me, but she's holding strong.
Renee bends down, hands on her knees. "I wasn't expecting you to be such a big girl."
"I'm five," Livvy says, stepping out from behind me, holding her hand up, fingers spread wide. "I can ride a bike."
"I'm sure you can. They've got those training wheels, don't they?"
"Not on my bike. Daddy took 'em off." She wipes her nose with the back of her hand.
Renee straightens up, mumbling something to Charlie that I can't make out. There's something way too stiff about them. It's a stiffness I'm familiar with. I glance at Bella, and notice a little crease between her eyes.
Livvy still hasn't let go of my leg. A part of me wants to pick her up, but I don't want to encourage whatever this shyness is. It isn't like her.
Bella offers her hand to Livvy. "Want to see my old room?"
"Maybe they'd like a drink," Renee says.
"I think Livvy would rather see my dolls."
She excuses us, and Liv and I follow Bella to her room.
There's a basket of dolls and stuffed animals in a corner. Livvy takes them out one at a time, sitting them in a row against the wall. Sally's their teacher.
The room doesn't look like it's been changed at all since Bella moved out. Colors everywhere, just like her apartment. Red and orange blur together.
"I don't think your parents like me," I say under my breath. "You said they'd be cool with-"
"I know," Bella whispers. "I thought they - I don't know what's going on with them."
She tugs at her lips and then drops her hand, sliding her palms together. She avoids my eyes as she tells me we'll just hurry through dinner and get out of here. With a hand on my shoulder, she stands on tiptoe to kiss my cheek and something—the slowness of it, or the softness, lips barely touching—something is off.
… … …
Right as we sit down to dinner Livvy says she has an emergency.
"A what?" Renee asks.
Bella points back toward the living room. "Down the hall, second door to the right. She has to go to the bathroom," she explains to her mom. "Door next to mine."
I take Livvy and wait outside the bathroom for her. She's into this privacy thing now when she uses the toilet. Never mind that I give her baths, but I'm not allowed in the room when she pees. Hushed and not so hushed voices make their way to me from the dining room.
It's Renee's voice first. "A five year old? When you said daughter, you didn't mention that."
"What difference does age make?" Bella asks.
"You were fifteen when she was born. How old is Edward?"
"A teenaged pregnancy then. Did he even finish high school? A mistake like that ruins a person's future."
Mistake? I eye the closed door in front of me, hoping it stays closed, hoping these voices aren't carrying through the wood. I put my hand on the door as if that will somehow help matters.
"And we're not just talking his future here, are we?" Charlie says. "We're talking yours, Bella."
"Where's the little thing's mother?"
Little thing? I feel sick. My fists tighten at my sides.
"What does he do for a living?" Charlie asks.
I drop my head into my hands, the heels of them digging into my eyes. I don't want to hear their reaction to Bella's answer. Why did I agree to bring Livvy here? I should've expected this.
Don't worry, I can still hear Bella saying. They're open-minded.
No one is.
I start to wonder if I let things happen with Bella too fast. If I should've been more careful. Livvy's already to the point where she leans over the back of the couch with her face pressed to the window when we're expecting Bella. If something goes wrong between Bella and me...
"Liv?" I tap a knuckle to the door a few times. "You okay in there?"
When we return to the table, Renee asks Livvy if she washed her hands. With a nod Livvy invites her to smell them.
I'm too pissed for the satisfied smirk I'd like to show on my face right now. I try to eat, taking a bite, and when it doesn't go down easy, I take a drink.
"So, Edward." Charlie, at the head of the table to my right, clears his throat. "Level with me. What are your plans for the future? No college, I take it?"
"Well, actually I... Right now it's about getting through each day."
"You don't have any plans?" he asks, as if he's asking if I worship the devil.
"I do. I have plans. But I know that plans change so I try not to..." I adjust the napkin on my lap. "I try to be realistic about it."
"Ah, I see." He cuts a bite of salmon, chews, swallows, washes it down. "One mistake begets another."
I shoot a glance at Livvy next to me, who thankfully appears not to be paying attention, munching on her rice.
"Have you given Bella the courtesy of discussing the difference between what's realistic for you and what's realistic for her?"
I put my fork down and sit back. I know how this goes. It doesn't matter what I say. Judgement's made. This is like when you see movement out of the corner of your eye but you know there is nothing there. You don't even have to look. You're alone. That's what this is like. Everything I can say to stand up for myself is that movement. It means nothing. I can say it and it will be as if it isn't even there.
"Her last boyfriend was-"
Bella cuts her dad off. "A jerk."
"Well, Mike had promise," her mother says."Medical school."
"Edward takes classes," Bella says. "Online."
My eyes snap across to her.
"What?" she asks. I shake my head, lips tight.
Charlie's chuckle catches Livvy's attention. My chest clenches. The chuckle may have been short, it may have been low, but he's fucking laughing at me. In front of my daughter. Sweat and chills cover me like this conversation is walking all over my skin.
"And you'll have your degree in a semester, is that right?" he asks.
I say nothing. One class at a time, sometimes two, I know it'll be years before I have a degree. I'm not going to assist him in belittling me.
"How much longer will it take for you? I mean, say, in comparison to Bella? Someone going full time?"
"You're breaking Amendment Number Four," Livvy says.
"What's that, dear?" Renee asks.
"We don't compare ourselves to others."
"That's one way to keep stagnant," Charlie says, followed by Renee's, "You're a precocious thing, aren't you?"
I wipe my mouth on the cloth napkin before laying it on my plate.
"What's pecocious, Daddy?"
"Livvy-Bird, I'm not feeling well. Go get Sally from Bella's room. And put your shoes on like the big girl you are." I pat her back to hurry her along.
As Livvy stands up to leave the dining room, I also stand up. "The salmon was delicious. Thank you for your... hospitality-" I look to Charlie "-and your enlightenment. Sorry to cut this short."
Bella's standing across from me. "Edward, don't listen to them. Don't-"
"Don't listen? It isn't just me. It's - it's her, Bella." I point toward the hallway Livvy's just walked down.
"Edward, maybe we should-" Renee reaches for my arm, but I'm pretty sure my glare stops her. "You see, we know what it's like to struggle. And that's without juggling a child at your age. We want to protect Bella from that sort of struggle. You must understand..."
"I get it. I do. It's okay. I mean, no, it's not okay. Say what you want about me. I've heard it all before. But leave Olivia out of it. Nobody-" I lower my voice but keep it firm, leaning in toward the center of the table, making eye contact with Renee and then Charlie at either end of the table "-nobody slams my daughter and nobody ever calls her a mistake. You want to protect your daughter? There's nothing I understand more than I understand that."
Livvy comes back, hair fallen over an eye, and her doll flopping in her hand. I pick her up, resting her against my hip and head toward the front door.
"Why are we leaving?" she whispers, too smart to believe I've come down with a sudden sickness.
"Because it's time," I whisper back.
"Is it 'cause I talked about the amendment?"
"Is it 'cause I'm pecocious?"
Walking into the night, I kiss her head. "It's nothing you did or said. And precocious. It's not about what it means. It's about what it is. It's a word adults use when they come across a kid who's smarter than they are." The sound of the ocean is loud and I barely notice it as I buckle her up in her seat.
"I didn't finish dinner."
"We'll stop for a burger and fries." I tighten her straps. "We'll eat at that place by the beach. That place you like with the patio by the beach." I can't afford it but we're doing it.
She claps as I push the front seat back in place. Bella's hand lands on my shoulder.
"I'll go with you," she says.
I turn to her. "Not tonight."
"This isn't... we're not..." I start to climb into the truck.
"Edward, don't go yet. Talk to me."
"Talk to you." I shut the door and speak low. "You want me to talk to you? Where should I start? Should I start where you assured me your parents would be open to Liv? Or should I start where they let their disappointment in your choice of boyfriend spread to calling my daughter names? And a fucking mistake? She could've heard that! Or maybe I should start where you were condescending to me."
"How was I condescending?"
"Bella, really? 'He takes classes online.'"
"But you do."
"Yeah, I know that. Thank you. I don't need that listed as the one thing that could appease your parents. Especially not after..."
"Forget it. Forget the fuck out of it. I gotta go. Just leave me to lead my nowhere life and to ruin my daughter's life while I'm at it."
I reach for my truck door, but Bella grabs my arm.
"Edward. Stop. You're scaring me. I'm afraid that..."
I spin around. "What?"
"I'm afraid you're - you are, aren't you?" Maybe it's the look on my face, maybe all my anger and fear is in plain view, but she says, "You're ending this, aren't you?"
I don't answer.
I rub at my eyebrow, pulling on skin.
"Edward, don't." She lifts her hand to my cheek and I wish that touch could do whatever she's trying to make it do.
I soften my voice. "It just. It might not be the best time for me to get serious."
With a nod she pulls her lips into her mouth and glances off into the distance and then back at me. "Maybe that is something you could've told me before I..." her voice falls quiet, a descent, a fading out "...fell in love with you."
My heart jumps and then plummets, like it's just leaping out of me. "Oh, God, Bella." My hand meets my chest, reaches for her, and then back to my chest. "Bella. I can't..."
She's shaking her head and backing away. Her eyes glisten in the dark, tears building.
I take her arm, just a light hold, but it's enough to still her. "No, I can't talk about this here." I look through the window. Light from the moon casts a glow over Livvy's face as her head rests against the seat, her eyes blinking to a close. She looks beautiful and angelic, innocent and vulnerable, and this sight reminds me of how much she needs me, relies on me. Turning my attention back to Bella I say, "I'll call you, okay? We'll talk tomorrow." I lean forward, a hand on her shoulder and kiss her cheek.
She avoids eye contact, averting her gaze to the ground or over my shoulder. "Yeah," she says, her voice flat. "Call me."
… … …
The ocean's pounding against the sand as if fueled by fury. It's hard to hear Livvy's non-stop chatter over its roar, over the wind howling through like this is a corridor created just for its amusement. It picks up used napkins, tossing them from table to table before throwing them on the cement.
Resting my head on my hands, I stretch my neck, facing the sky. Despite the wind, the night is clear, and every star in existence seems to be shining. This sky projects that the world is beautiful. It's a fucking lie.
Ketchup is smeared across her cheek, and I grab the napkin I've jammed under my leg. I shake my head as I rub it over her face.
"Owww. Da-ad. Stop it." She frowns at me, blue eyes narrowed, too much like Rose. "Why are you so grumpy?"
I zip her sweater up to her chin. "Hurry up and finish your dinner." The strain in my voice echoes my nerves—stretched like a band pulled tight. I chuck the napkin onto the empty space on the table in front of me, and the wind takes it immediately, tumbling it across the table and to the ground. Fucking perfect.
"Aren't you hungry?" Livvy holds out a fry in her sauce-and-salt coated fingers. "Why aren't you having any dinner? Did you fill up at Bella's mommy's house?"
I breathe deep through my nose, and push her hand away. Because I can't fucking afford to. "I'm not hungry. Eat."
The fry disappears into her mouth and she reaches for her grease-smeared glass. I'm about to remind her to hold it with two hands when she sets it back on the table—off-kilter. It falls with a clunk, spilling lemonade all over the table. I watch the liquid seep between the wood slats, my teeth tight to stop the harsh words from erupting out of me.
"I'm sorry." The wobble in my daughter's voice forces me to ignore the anger and frustration that have been simmering under my skin from the moment we stepped through the Swans' front door and turned their nice, ordered little world upside down.
My eyes close for just longer than a blink as I grasp for patience and self-control. "It's okay. It happens." The server I signal seems to disagree, looking at me like I've tipped half a bottle of red wine over her finest wool carpets as she tries to sop up the mess with a few more napkins.
"Can we get another one?" I ask.
She looks at me like she doesn't comprehend.
"Another one?" I point to the empty glass on her tray. "And a water for me."
By the time I get Livvy home, bathed and into bed, I'm craving a beer—or an entire bottle of Bacardi.
"Daddy? I haven't had a story."
From the couch, I call back to her, "It's late. We can read two tomorrow."
"But I can't sleep without a story."
My voice is hard, stamping on each syllable. "Olivia. Enough. Go to sleep."
She's quiet for a minute, and then I hear a soft sniffle and self-disgust is acid in my blood, eating at me until I'm on my feet headed to her room.
I switch on the lamp by her bed, and my hand smooths over her hair. "I'm sorry, Livvy-Bird."
She sniffles again but doesn't speak, and I lean close to kiss her cheek. She smells like lavender bubble bath as my lips meet skin wet with her tears. Tears I made fall.
"I'm sorry for shouting, baby. It's not your fault. I'm just tired, okay? Sometimes people just get tired." I fall to her bed.
She nods against the pillow.
"Yeah?" I hate that I put that tentativeness in her voice.
The tiniest smile meets her lips. "I love you, Daddy."
"I love you, too, Livvy-Bird. Now, what are you going to read to me?"
She shakes her head, her hair falling across the pillow, her mouth widening with a yawn. "You read to me."
"Yeah, baby. Of course."
Sliding out a book from the shelf above Livvy's bed, I push Bella's tear-filled eyes and her parents and the whole messed up night from my mind. I let myself focus until this room—the sound of my voice, the little hand in mine, the eyelashes closing against a soft cheek—is my entire universe.
… … …
I call Bella the next day as promised, but can't get through. I leave a voicemail. When she returns my call, I'm on a four-hour wall retexturing job, unable to get to my phone. She doesn't leave a voicemail. But when I get home, sweaty and dusty and splattered with plaster, Bella's there, waiting on my stoop.
She's wearing her hair in a low ponytail, strands falling around the front. She tucks them behind her ear as she drops her head. I don't like the way she looks down as if she's not allowed to look at me, or can't.
Inside I offer her a drink, but she declines. And we stand there, yards between us. I can't bring myself to step closer. She's not wearing any makeup and she looks tired. She tugs at the hem of her shorts. I scrape some plaster off the back of my hand with a thumbnail that could use a trim.
"Don't you... I mean, don't you have anything to say?"
I don't really know what to say so I tell her that, which is apparently the wrong thing. She starts to leave. I move faster than her, cutting her off and blocking the door.
She backs away, face to the floor like she's about to get punished. "If you're going to end this, just end it. Just rip that band-aid right off. This is - this is..."
End it? The End? My insides recoil from the thought. "I just - I need some time. I need to figure this out—figure us out. I want this to work. I just don't know if it can. I need some time."
"You don't know if it can? You want me to wait for you until you decide whether you want me or not?"
"Yes. No. Fuck. Bella."
"Well, I think it's pretty clear what I want. I want you." She looks up at me. "And if you want me, well, here we are. Right?"
I can't hold her stare. I look past her.
"Oh," she says, and her tone of voice, the disappointment in it, has my eyes meeting hers again. "Okay. I've been - I've presumed too much." She gives a fast shake of her head.
"No, I just thought that you-" she points a finger at me. "I thought... but, okay." She runs shaky fingers around her ear. "So you want me to give you time. How long? How long should I wait for you with my breath held and my fingers crossed?" She blinks back tears and just seeing them there is a blow to my chest.
"No, just tell me how long. A couple of days? A week? A year?" She wipes under each eye with a knuckle. "Or maybe it's a don't call you, you'll call me, kind of thing." She laughs at that and wipes more tears and I have no idea what's going on or what to say or what she wants me to say. But I wish she'd stop crying. I want to tell her not to cry, or I want to wipe her tears myself, kiss them off her face. But she's mad and I don't know what I'm allowed to do at this point.
I move to the couch, collapsing into it, and it makes a creaking sound that reminds me I need a new couch, which reminds me of the coffee can of cash I have in the cupboard, my savings for a new couch. Every choice in my life is thought through and planned. It has to be. I lean forward, arms on my knees and look up at her. "Listen. You get to think about today. Just today. If you don't want to think about tomorrow, or next week or ten years from now, you don't have to. But I do. Every day. I have to think about every day and how my daughter is or will be affected. I can't bring her into something that..." I shake my head. "Dating you, having you meet her, all of that, I'm thinking future. You know? Family. And if you and I are together, your family is a part of that future. I just need to think about it. I need to think-"
"I wasn't aware that by dating me, you're dating my whole family."
"That's what I'm saying. When Liv's involved, that is what I'm doing." If her family becomes my family, they become Liv's family. And her family, they were cruel to Olivia.
How much of what I'm thinking can I tell Bella? How much would make her mad? I remember back, four years ago, the last fight Rose and I had before we broke up. We said awful things to each other. True things—so true they can never be taken back. It's easy to take back the things you say that you don't mean, but taking back something true, I think that's impossible. I can't talk about this with Bella now. I can't accidentally say something that I might not ever be able to take back.
"But we don't have to see them. My parents, they, they'll come around. I know them. We'll just avoid them until they do."
"That isn't, that's not realistic, Bella."
"So then what, Edward? What? My parents are my parents. That doesn't change, ever. So if that's the bottom line for you, is this it?"
"No. I'm asking you for time. For fucking time, all right?" I stand up and I'm losing control of my voice level. "Give me time. I need to just - I need to take a step back." She's trying to make me talk about things I haven't even fully thought through yet.
"Okay." Her voice is quiet but not soft. Each word is abrupt. An edge to it, like it's hitting a wall. "All right. You want time. You got it."
She turns and walks out the door. I'm the one against the wall.
… … …
The walls are too white. They glare at me, and I stare at them for too long. I find cracks and fill them in with spackle.
There are places in my apartment where I can feel Bella. I swear I can feel her. And it happens unexpectedly. On the couch watching TV, something will make me laugh or Livvy laugh and I'll look over at Bella, actually expecting her to be looking back, knowingly, nodding, smiling. In the morning when I wake up, she's there in the bed, her warmth, but when I circle my hand around, she's gone, that side of the bed naked and cold.
In the coming days, I drag myself to work like I have chains attached to my ankles. Dinners with Livvy are quiet except when she's talking. I don't say anything unless she asks me a question, and sometimes she has to ask me more than once. I look around and I see my life, Livvy and me, and I wonder if I'm enough for her, if I've done this right. This small apartment. Every piece of furniture in this place is a hand-me-down, except for the kitchen table which I built with my dad. Livvy's furniture came from a cousin and is the only matching set we have. My bed used to belong to my parents. They gave it to me when they bought a new one. The dresser and night table are still the same from my teenage years. The couch was my grandmother's. I bought the TV from Emmett and he threw in the stand.
I look around and know that I have hopes for Livvy that are bigger than what I have to offer her. I look around and I understand Bella's parents more than ever.
I feel like I've spent years building a boat that doesn't float.
I'm sinking. Will Livvy sink, too? Would Bella?
I'm silent when I give Livvy a bath and she wants me to play. She wants me to make motorboat noises and to talk back to her toys and to make funny shapes with her soapy hair. I can't.
And when she's wrapped in a towel on the bathroom floor, and I'm combing her tangles out, she does it again, she asks for a braid. Not even a regular braid, a French one. I don't even know what that means. I tell her I'll give her an Irish braid and I twist her hair to the ends, show it to her in the mirror, calling it Irish.
When I let go, it unravels.
I read a book to her in her bedroom, and then she reads one to me. I shut her light off.
In my room, I sit at the end of my bed, my head in my hands, trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order, thankful for the quiet, for no questions I have to answer, for no voice begging me to play or to read another story or to sing a fucking song of sixpence.
"I wanna sleep with you tonight."
I look up. "Not tonight. Go back to bed."
"I wanna sleep in your bed."
"You're a big girl. You have your own bed."
"Here." She points to my bed.
"Olivia." I use my firmest voice. It's a warning. To her. To me.
"I wanna sleep with you."
"I need to be alone. One night alone."
"I'm scared of the dark."
"You have a nightlight."
"I told you I need to be alone. Go back to your room and just leave me alone!"
She stares, eyes like saucers. She turns around, walks to her room. But I don't miss the chin-quiver or the watering eyes.
I run a heavy hand through my hair and get up. I go to her room. She's sitting on her bed, singing to Sally as she rocks her in her arms. Bird Song. Another crack in my heart.
I sit at the end of her bed. "Bird?" I open my arms. "Come here."
She looks at me like I'm offering her the one Christmas present she asked for. She drops Sally and crawls into my lap. My arms close around her, rocking her. "I'm sorry, Livvy-Bird." I kiss her face, sticky with tears. "I'm sorry." I push back strands of hair that are stuck to her cheek. "I love this Bird," I tell her, "more than anything."
Behind her, above her bed, I notice one of her shoe boxes sitting on the shelf I hung for her. "What's that doing up there?" I point to it.
"Those are my butterflies."
I pull the box down, set it on her bed and open it. Inside are all kinds of paper butterflies in different colors and patterns. Livvy starts pulling them out one by one. "I made this one. Bella made this one. I made that one. Bella made that one." As she's showing them to me, I notice writing on the underside of each one. I take one out. It's Bella's handwriting. "I wish to read a whole chapter of Charlotte's Web by myself." And another one: "I wish to surf someday, standing up."
"What are these?"
"My wishes and dreams. Bella says they're so important they should be wrote down and saved."
I swallow and feel a knot going down. Bella did this for her. She wrote down all of my daughter's wishes, even the insignificant ones. She taught her something and gave her a gift at the same time. Something that can't be taken from her. A sense of importance and purpose.
"You want a skateboard?" I ask, reading another wish. "And a fish?" I laugh. These are perfect. A fish I can do.
"What would you name your fish?"
"You've really thought this through." I pull a colored pencil from the decorated soup can on her dresser and write Hot Lava on the fish wish. "Now it's official." I put the butterflies away and tuck the box back up on the shelf. "You know what I wish? I wish Livvy would come sleep in my room. What do you say?"
She nods, and I pick her up.
Tucked in next to me, her voice is quiet like the dark. "Daddy? I miss Bella."
Me, too, I think. I don't know what to tell her, though, so I say nothing.
"Why doesn't she want to see us anymore?"
My cracked heart seems to split wide open. Every breath stings like hot water washing over a burst blister.
"Did I make her mad?"
"No, baby. Not at all." I push my shoulders back, shift my weight, try to lose the waver in my voice. I don't know what's true. I don't know if Bella will want to see me again. I give her what I can, what I do know, even if she's never said it. "Bella loves you, a lot."
"Can she come to my birthday party?"
I rub up and down my cheek. "I'm sure she will." And I'll make sure she does. Even if we're not together, even if she can't forgive me for pushing her away, I know she'll come—for Livvy's sake.
Liv yawns, her "okay" distorted as her lips stretch wide.
"Sleep now, Livvy-Bird." I sing her A Song of Sixpence until she falls asleep. It's hard because she always giggles when the blackbird snaps off the maid's nose.
I watch her in her sleep, her hands folded on top of the covers, her lips turned up in the corners. She looks like an angel. She is an angel. I kiss her forehead. "I love you, my Bird."
… … …
It's a hot June day, sun that burns and wind that soothes. A beach day. It would be really great if I were rapping my knuckles on this door to take Bella to the beach. Her body in a bikini. Rubbing sunscreen on her back, my lips following. Running and falling into waves.
Maybe someday I'll be here for that. Someday soon..
I know she's home, not only because she'd told me she planned to take finals week off work, but also because I saw her car in her parking space.
Seth opens the door, but he stops when he sees me, holding it only as wide as his shoulders. He leans through the gap. I catch a flash of anger in his eyes, jaw set. He looks like one spark, one wrong word will set him off. "Handyman."
"Hey, Seth. Is she-"
I hear Bella's quiet voice, "Is that Edward?" and my stomach jumps to my chest.
Seth looks over his shoulder, and I picture Bella curled up on that faded red couch, pillows piled around her. "Yep."
"Is Livvy with him?"
Seth leans out farther, scanning the walkway in both directions. "Nah."
"Then tell him I'm not fucking home."
He raises his eyebrows. You heard her.
Sighing, I scrub my hands over my face, as if I can wash off all the frustration. "Seth—just hear me out."
"Why isn't he going? What's hard to understand about She's not home?"
Seth opens the door a little wider and steps outside, pulling it half-closed behind him. "Seriously, dude. I like you. But I'd also really like to hit you. All she has to do is ask… and she probably will if we take too long. So talk fast."
The thought of Bella telling Seth to hit me could make me smile if I didn't want to, need to, talk to her so bad. There are things she has to understand about being with me, and Livvy. The unsturdy package we come in with all its torn corners.
"I know you get it. Why I did this. The same reason you're standing out here blocking me from Bella." I look him over. He's big, but if I really wanted to get past him I could. I can feel it in every muscle.
He circles his finger, like, Keep going.
"You're standing here, prepared to hit me for her sake. You have to get that I'd do anything for Livvy, to keep her safe, to stop her from getting hurt."
He frowns, and his head jerks, like he's stopping himself from nodding.
"Even if it meant denying what I want. If it was best for Liv, I'd do it."
"I get that." His arms fold across his chest. "But why are you here, then? To tell her she's great but it's not gonna happen? Break her heart a little more?"
"No. I want her to know that I think-" I shake my head "-I think we belong together. And well, I - we miss her. And I..." I start to tell him about the butterflies, but decide it's none of his business. Those are Livvy's secret. Livvy's and Bella's.
"You what?" Bella's standing in the doorway, hair piled on top of her head, her face pale.
"I miss you."
"No, before that."
"We belong together," I say, trying. "The three of us: you, Livvy, me."
"Bella-" Seth tries to nudge her out of the way, blocking with his big shoulder. "You said you didn't want him to think he could just-"
"I know what I said. Get out of my way, please." She's slapping at his shoulder, her eyes fixed on me.
"I need to talk to you, Bella." I don't dare avert my eyes from hers, afraid I'll lose her gaze.
"Seth." She pulls his shoulder until he steps aside. She gestures with a finger for me to follow her. I look at Seth as I pass, wondering if he'll stop me. He stares back at me, but doesn't move.
I follow her to her bedroom, dodging the piles of cushions and beanbags in the living room.
I hear Seth call Bella's name. She pokes her head out her door. "It's okay. Promise." She closes the door and turns to me. I don't know what to do, sit or stand. Lean against the wall?
"So, you're ready to talk and you just expect me to be ready to listen?"
I push fingers into my hair and breathe deep. "Will you? Listen?" I look at my shoes, then back at her.
She lifts an eyebrow, lips tight. "Talk."
"Your dad-" I raise a finger when her lips part "-was right about one thing. The things that are realistic for us, they're different. My reality is different. I-I want to tell you about it. I want you to understand it, so that if you choose it… I mean…"
Her hand finds mine, just for a second and then it's gone. "I get it. Go on."
Fingers on my temples, I push in circles. "It's hard. Bella, you've seen Livvy on her best behavior. When she's excited to see you, trying to impress you. I mean, she wants you to like her, you know? But, being around Livvy can be like lighting a match. Sometimes it burns steady, sometimes it blows out easy, and other times, it's like lighting up while drenched in gasoline. A Livvy-explosion."
She lets out a small laugh.
"You already know this about kids. But it's different living it. Living it is kid-vomit all over your bed at two in the morning, tantrums in grocery stores; it's her refusing to wear anything but the magenta tu-tu for the seventh day in a row, and it's never knowing when you'll have to cancel appointments.
"But it's not only her, you know?" My gaze drops to my hands and I push aside my pride. "It's-it's financially. We're not-"
"Edward, you don't-"
"No, I do. This is why I took time, thinking all this through. You should hear it because the thing is, Bella, being with me, it's your choice." I shove my hands into my pockets.
"Mine? But I thought-"
"Just, let me?"
She nods for me to continue, her face softer now, everything about it, her eyes glistening, watery. She pulls her hair down, wrapping her band around her wrist and sliding her fingers through the ends, smoothing. It's all wavy and knotted. She spreads her fingers to work through the knots. But her face is intent on mine. I don't think she's paying any attention to her hair. It's all automatic.
"Like your mom said, it's a struggle. And I can't promise that it won't always be a struggle for me. We have small Christmases, small birthdays. I'd have to save up for years to take Liv on vacation. And sometimes, I go without so Livvy doesn't have to."
Her forehead creases, her eyes on the metal post of her bed. She wraps a hand around the metal ball and just rubs back and forth on it. It's my turn to touch her hand. "I'm not telling you this to make you feel bad for us. It's hard, but it's just life. With a baby at seventeen, you grow up fast."
"I'm not looking for a provider," she says. "This isn't the fifties, even if my parents are acting like it is. What do you think I'm going to school for?"
"Still, you should know it all." I hold onto the post right below her hand to ground myself for the things I least want to talk about. "There's judgement, too. The assumptions people make about a young parent. They assume I can't raise Liv to be anything but a loser. That we're just a drain on the welfare system. Disapproving looks, unsolicited advice. And kids are kids, right? They get tired and cranky, they have tantrums. But people see me with her, and it's - it's not her just being a normal five-year-old, it's me being a bad father. And you being with me, with us, you'll get it, too." I don't want that for Livvy, and I don't want that for Bella, but it's the reality of our lives. If Bella chooses us, I want her to choose us with her eyes open.
"Wait. There's just one more thing." I look at her, and I wonder if she can see it in my eyes. Or see it pulsing under my skin as I step closer. Maybe she can't, and I'm not going to let the chance slip by again. So I take her hand and I weave my fingers through hers as I say the words I've kept only for Livvy for so long. I put everything I have and everything I am on the table. "I love you, Bella. I love you."
Her fingers grip mine back. Her eyelids shake and her beautiful deep brown eyes fill with tears. They spill over, and this time I can wipe them away, and so I do with the back of a knuckle and the lightest touch. Her lips move, like she's telling herself something, and then she sighs and looks away.
"You know, I always thought my parents were pretty cool. I never really went through that oh-my-God-you're-so-embarrassing phase. But I swear to God, Edward, I've never been so disgusted, just so completely mortified, as I was by my mom and dad that night. The things they said to you… in front of Livvy." She pulls her hair over her shoulder.
"Just the absolute hypocrisy, you know? I've grown up being taught not to judge, to expect the best from people, not the worst. The way they talked to you. You talk about the judgement you face - I wonder if you can understand how sick it made me feel that my own parents were the ones doing the judging. If I had thought for a minute..." She shakes her head. "I wouldn't have asked you to bring Livvy." Her eyes meet mine and something in them hardens. "And you - you wouldn't let me say any of this that night. You just drove away and shut me out." Her fingers slide into her hair at the top of her head, and her gaze falls to the floor. "And after I said that I loved you. I thought that you didn't, that you didn't..."
I lift her chin. "I did and I do and I'm sorry." Her tears are back. Instead of wiping them away I kiss them.
She lets out a breath. "I'm sorry, too."
I slide the back of my finger down her cheekbone and then pull her in close to me, wrapping her up tight.
She turns her head to the side, her face against my heartbeat and she talks into my chest. "The day you met them, before you got there, I told my parents that I loved you. And then, to have them speak to you like that..."
The hurt in Bella's voice tears at me. I think about how it would destroy me to ever be responsible for making Livvy feel like this. "People have double-standards when it comes to their own kids, Bella." I pull away just far enough to give her a small smile.
She returns the smile. "And you were so nice to them - you're still being gracious about them."
I put her arms around my back and wrap her tight again. I need her in my arms. I run my lips and my nose over her temple. "They want to protect you from what comes with being with someone like me."
"Someone like you?" She lets go of me, her eyes narrowed in a way I don't understand. She crosses to her window and looks out. "Someone like you. Hard-working. Protective. Giving. Someone who does the right thing just because it's the right thing to do. Your mom told me about how you put up with everything Rosalie puts you through, all for Livvy's sake." She turns from the window and looks at me. "I know friends of my parents who wouldn't or couldn't do something like that for their kids." There's an intensity in her gaze that makes my breath falter.
"Edward. You-" she points a finger at me "-are exactly the kind of guy I'd want my daughter to be with."
I'm speechless. My mind is filled with this staticky buzzing, and I shake my head, trying to clear it.
"Don't shake your head."
I blink at her and sit down on her bed, trying to wrap my brain around what she just said.
"You don't see yourself very clearly. You're so… used to people's judgement that I think, maybe - you've started to believe it." She moves across the room to stand in front of me. She puts one hand on my shoulder, the other rakes through my hair and pushes my head back so I'm looking up at her.
Her eyes are serious, the tears pooling in them again. "You're not ruining her life, Edward. And you're not going nowhere." She slides her hand from my hair down my face. "You're a good dad, and you're giving that little girl everything she needs. Everything that really matters."
There's a sob stuck in my throat and I force it down—keep it trapped inside. I can't stop the tears that slide from the corners of my eyes, though. I wipe them away, embarrassed.
Standing in front of me, knees to knees, she takes my hand. "Whatever comes with being with you and Livvy, I want it. I'll deal with it. Because I'm so in love you. Both of you. You're worth it."
If I thought I had her wrapped up tight before, she doubles it up on me, squeezing the breath out of me with her hug, arms around my neck.
I stand with her, my arms at her waist and my lungs in my throat. "I'm so in love with you, too."
Just as Bella lifts up to kiss me, I see the clock behind her and I'm swearing, practically into her mouth. "We need to talk more, but I have to get Livvy from school."
She pulls me by the hand. "I'll come."
We kind of trip over each other on the way out the door as she grabs her keys and slides on shoes. When Bella nearly falls headfirst down the concrete stairs and I grab her by the hips to steady her, I can't take it anymore. So there, on the stairs, her a step higher than me, I push her back against the brick wall. With my hands in her hair, I take a second to just look at her. She starts to say my name, but I cut her off with a kiss. I pour all the things we've said and all the things we still need to say into it.
Out of breath, we smile at each other for a beat, and then we're stomping down the rest of the stairs and clambering into my truck, laughing like we're amazed.
As I drive, Bella's feet are up on the dash, where they belong. I trace a vein in her foot, and her hand follows mine back to the gearstick.
"What about my parents?" she asks eventually. She's looking away from me, staring out her window.
Making a right turn, I sigh. "Well… who really gets along with their in-laws anyway?"
I glance at her. There's a smile twitching her lips. "You know what I mean."
"I do." She giggles, looking at me and I can't help but chuckle.
"Funny." I pull into the parking lot and turn the truck off. The bell won't ring for a few more minutes. "I won't let them hurt Livvy. I won't take that chance. She can't be around your parents unless they understand what they can't say around her. Five year olds are smarter than most people think. She picks up on too much. You'll have to see your parents. But if I go, unless they get where I'm coming from with Liv, she'll have to stay with my mom or something."
Bella nods, her smile fading. Her eyes fall and I hate that being with me could put a strain on her relationship with her parents. They might come around, but they might not, and that's something neither of us have any power over.
"Hey." I reach over and touch her cheek. "What happens is up to them. I can't change it. You can't change it."
She catches my hand and holds it to her face. "I know."
"But no matter what, I want to be with you."
She nods, her cheek brushing against our joined hands. She turns to kiss my fingertips. The words are on my lips when the bell rings, startling us both.
Shaking my hand off, Bella's out of the car in a flash. "What?" she asks, when I scoff, closing the driver's side door with a thud. "You're not the only one I've missed, you know."
The feeling is evidently mutual. When Bird comes bursting out of her classroom, backpack bouncing, hair escaping from pigtails in a mess, her whole face seems to light up.
"Bella!" She flies straight into Bella's arms.
Seeing this, my heart feels bigger than my chest. I can actually feel it in there like it's pressing against my ribcage. When they part, both of them looking at me with tears in their eyes, and my eyes matching, I say, "What a bunch of crybabies."
Listening to the two of them chatter the entire way home then disappear straight into Livvy's bedroom, there's this lightness in me—like I'm breathing easier. I can't even find it in me to regret the fact Bella and I haven't had the chance to "make up" all the way yet. Seeing her put Livvy first like this—it's like proof positive of what I've already come to believe. She belongs with us.
… … …
It was Bella's idea. I provided the fishing wire.
We're in Livvy's room, stringing the butterflies across her ceiling, Livvy directing us. "I want the pink and purple ones there." She points above her bed. "And the blue and green ones there." She points above her window. "And the yellow and orange ones there." She points above her door.
We all three lie on our backs horizontally on Livvy's bed and look up at our work.
"The box is empty," Livvy says.
"You're just going to have to start over and refill it," Bella says.
"And hang those ones?"
"I'll have butterflies all over the apartment."
Bella takes my hand. "You say that like it's a bad thing."
Liv picks out the movie, I scoop the ice cream—Bella's "little bit" and Livvy's "lots and lots." They both get the same amount.
The movie's already started when I join them with three bowls. Livvy's tucked up on Bella's lap on the couch. She claps her hands and reaches for the bowl of ice cream, but I shake my head, telling her she has to sit on the floor to eat it so she doesn't spill ice cream all over our brand new couch. I saved up long enough for it, there's no way I'm risking kid-stains.
"Daddy?" Her lips are covered in melted ice cream, and a cluster of multi-colored sprinkles are stuck to her cheek.
"No questions 'til the end. Don't interrupt the movie."
Bella reaches forward and swipes the sprinkles off Liv's cheek with her napkin.
When Liv's attention is reclaimed by fish adventures, I set the dirty bowls on the coffee table, and slide my hand around Bella's waist. I tug at her, poking her in the side until she wriggles close enough for me to pull her sideways into my lap. I sweep her hair to the side and kiss her neck, chuckling against her as she squirms.
When kisses become nips, and my tongue slides across her skin, she hisses at me to behave.
"Liv, how much longer is this movie?"
She knows it inside out and front to back—she's watched it way too many times since her birthday.
"It just started! They haven't even gone through the jellies and met Crush, duuuude. And you're breaking my rule."
"Okay." My fingers tangle in the ends of Bella's hair, twisting it and wiping it against my cheek like a paintbrush.
Bella turns her head, scowling at me, but I can see the gleam in her eye—she can't wait for bedtime either. I rest my arm over her knees, locking her to me. She squirms a little in my lap, I think on purpose, and she chuckles at the groan I muffle against her skin as she wriggles and worsens the situation I've got going on there.
She kisses me on the nose, her eyes saying everything—Later—then slips off my lap to sit on the floor beside Livvy. Bella leans against my legs, her neck resting between my knees. My hands move to her hair, my fingers combing through it.
She sighs. "Yes, Edward?
"Do you know how to braid?"