It's loud in here, the bar packed with nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff who've come off shift and are winding down with a beer or a glass of wine before they head home. The place has been refurbished since I was last here, three, maybe four months ago. With Bella and Emily waiting for me at home, hanging around after work hasn't held much attraction. Tonight though, I've given in to Tyler's nagging—I've blown him off so often in the eleven months since Emily was born that I actually started to feel bad when his smile faded and he shrugged his shoulders and said "I get it, man. Maybe next time."
The place has gone a little more upmarket after the remodelling. Less dive bar and more wine bar. A wine list ten times longer than the limited but trendy menu. Fancy beers—imported and from local microbreweries. A shiny, chandelier-style sculpture made of wine glasses suspended in the middle of the room. The low light from the old-fashioned globes hung unclad over the bar and booths balanced by the blond wood floors and tables and the white leather upholstery.
As I lift the beer bottle to my lips, I sneak a look at my watch, trying to still the bouncing of my knee beneath the table.
"Gotta get home to the ball and chain?" Crowley's words don't carry the same derision they would have six months ago.
"Soon," is all the answer I give him. I promised him one beer, and I'm halfway through my second.
He nods, picking at the edges of label wrapped around his nearly empty bottle of beer. Not sure where to steer the conversation next—we've already dissected the day's surgeries, I smash a fry into the little bowl of chilli-mayonnaise and pop it in my mouth.
Tyler's gaze is fixed on the label he's carefully peeling from the bottle and there's a nervousness I've never heard in his voice before. "So, I'm seeing this chick tomorrow night."
I have no idea what to say to that. "Yeah?"
"Yep," he says, glancing up at me. "Siobhan." He drops his focus back to the bottle.
That's not a particularly common name. "The girl you went out with last weekend?"
Once again, I'm not exactly sure what to say. In all the years I've known the guy, he's never seen the same girl twice. It's not his style, he'd say. He was just having fun, not looking for anything more. He was still young. Didn't want to be tied down.
"That's, uh … That's awesome, man."
"She's pretty cool," he says. He's going for casual, but even as he looks everywhere but at me, I can see right through him.
"You really like her," I say.
"I guess." He puts the bottle down and flattens his hands on the table.
"You're worried about screwing it up?"
"No … Yes … I don't know." He moves the fingers of one hand, as though over invisible piano keys.
"Second date," I say. "Don't put too much pressure on yourself, dude. Just have fun."
He looks up, and it could be the light, or he could be sunburned, but I'm pretty sure his neck and the tops of his ears are turning pink.
"Just get to know her," I suggest. "Ask lots of questions. Find out what she's interested in and all that." I fiddle with the titanium ring on the fourth finger of my left hand, feeling relieved I'll never have to play the dating game again.
"You need to head out," Tyler says.
"Yeah." I haven't finished my beer, but I'm itching to leave.
"All right." He extends his hand over the table and we shake. It's awkward with the table being the height it is, but our smiles aren't. "See ya tomorrow?"
"Nah. I've got the next two days off."
"Cool. Monday, then."
"Yep." I get to my feet and scoop up my keys and the phone that has sat face-up, but silent, on the table beside me since we took our seats. "See you Monday."
There's a slight chill carrying on the breeze when I climb out of the car, the smell of imminent rain sweetening the air. The streetlights haven't come on yet, but the light over our front door shines a warm and welcoming gold.
Letting myself in, I toe off my shoes and empty the contents of my pockets onto the sideboard before I go in search of my girls.
I collect a few of the painted, wooden blocks scattered in the hallway as I go, tossing them into the pink toy bucket in the corner when I wander into the living room. There's an overflowing basket of laundry sitting on the floor and piles of folded clothes on one of the couches.
A little voice echoes off the bathroom walls.
"Da." Emily's shout pulls a smile to my face. "Dada."
Bella says something in response but I don't catch the words, just their soothing tone.
The explosion of clothes, the toys scattered around the place, the half-eaten bowl of spaghetti still sitting on the tray of Em's high chair—none of it matters, not when she's calling my name.
The bathroom door is open, the floor is covered with water and rapidly dissipating piles of bubbles.
"Dada!" My daughter sits waist-deep in the lavender scented bath water, grinning up at me.
"Hi, sweetheart. Have you been a good girl for Mommy today?"
Emily lifts a washcloth in greeting, shaking it happily. Water rains from the cloth before she lets it fall back into the tub with a splash.
"She's been great. Very busy." Bella is sitting on the floor beside the tub, dark patches splattered across her shirt, her hair a messy knot on top of her head. She smiles up at me. "Hi."
Bella tilts her face up for a kiss as Emily squeals and flaps her chubby arms, soaking her mother some more. "Sorry, I know the place is a mess."
"Don't worry about it," I say, pushing some damp hair off her face. "We'll tackle it once she's in bed."
Bella nods. I haven't failed to notice the circles beneath her eyes—the ones that only faded about four months ago when Em started sleeping all the way through the night—have darkened again over the last week or so.
"Yeah." She yawns. "Just tired."
"Did you nap when Emily did?"
"Nope. I tend to stay up too late if I sleep during the day. So I just did some laundry and put dinner in the crockpot. Answered a few work emails, then read for about an hour."
"Okay." I'm glad she spent some time doing something for herself.
I haven't always been as supportive and understanding as I could be, I have to admit, and so it's been an uphill battle to convince her that I won't think she's being "lazy" if she does something purely for her own enjoyment. Because there have been those days when I've come home from a particularly stressful shift and become irritated by the chaos that's greeted me as I walked in the front door. There have been times when I've snapped at her, or asked that stupid question, the one I regret as soon as it slips out: "But what did you do all day?"
"Inside voice, Em," Bella says, modelling the volume she's hoping for. "You don't need to shout at Daddy."
"Da! Da da da!"
Emily's chubby fingers curl around the sides of the bathtub and she starts to pull herself up, trying to stand. "No, Emmy," I say. "Sit down, please."
She grins up at me, cheeks shiny and wet, her four teeth flashing, but continues to push her bottom into the air until she's awkwardly standing, leaning over the side of the tub. Shaking my head, I scoop her up before she can slip and smash her face into the porcelain. Bella hands me a towel, and I wrap my squirming, slippery daughter up and head into her bedroom.
Bella has already laid out a clean diaper and her pajamas, though getting Emily into them is about as easy as I imagine it would be to dress an octopus. I blow raspberries on her tummy, trying to distract her from her attempts to roll over on the change table. She giggles and it amazes me, the way that sound pulls a smile to my lips, as exhausted as I am after a long day.
Her eyes have darkened now, no longer newborn-blue but the same deep brown shade as her mother's. She looks up at me, smiling, as I fasten the snaps on her onesie.
"Can you say 'Mama?' Mama."
She looks around as though she expects Bella to appear at the sound of her name. "Baba."
"No. Not baba. Mama."
"Shhh," I say. I repeat the word at the appropriate volume: "Mama."
Bella's soft laughter slips into the room ahead of her. I can't read the expression on her face as I scoop Emily up. I wonder briefly if she's hurt that Em still hasn't mastered the "M" sound, but I quickly discount the idea—there's no sadness in her eyes as she looks from our daughter to me.
"We've been practicing that," she says. Her voice carries the same suppressed emotion I can see on her face.
"Practicing saying Mama?"
My wife shakes her head, her gaze dropping to the carpet. "No."
She drags her bare foot back and forth a few times before she looks me in the eye again. I shift Emily on my hip as I stare at Bella, nervous wonder tripping through my veins and making me feel light-headed.
"I hoped she'd say it earlier," she says, and despite the tiredness, I can see the glow of excitement coloring her expression now. "We've been saying it for the last two days, but …" She shrugs. She licks her lips, then lets go of the smile she's been holding back.
"Baba!" Emily squirms against me, reaching for Bella, her hands flexing and curling insistently.
I hand her over. I can feel Bella watching me closely as I duck my head and pull a hand through my hair. "Really?"
I look up to see her nod, and the apprehension tightening her smile. "Really."
"Baba," Emily says, nodding to herself. She claps her hands together, clearly pleased with her mastery of the sound.
"That's right, Emmy," Bella says. "We're going to have another baby in our house soon."
For the third time, all those feelings rush through me, rising up, overwhelming me. I sink into the armchair Bella uses to breastfeed Em, my head in my hands. I try to speak, but the tangle of emotions clogs my throat. They're all there, those familiar feelings—joy, anxiety, pride, panic, amazement.
It takes me a few moments to sort through the jumble inside me, to push aside the worry and fear and reach instead to take hold of that cord of hope.
Lifting my head, I look at Bella, hoping I haven't worried her with my wordlessness. She's now sitting on her heels before me, Em on her lap, but her gentle smile is still in place.
I swallow hard and the words scratch their way up my throat, "I can't wait."
Bella settles Emily on the carpet and hands her a small toy. Rising to her knees, my wife reaches for me, and I let her pull me out of the chair and onto my knees, too. I cup her jaw and kiss all over her face, tasting the few tears that have trailed down her cheeks. I wipe them with my thumbs, feeling the burn of emotion in the corners of my own eyes. Wrapping my arms around her, I pull her close, aware that even now, sandwiched between us, there's a new miracle taking shape.
Emily crawls over to us and tugs at the hem of my shirt. "Dada."
I look down at my daughter and then back into the eyes she's inherited, and I say the two words that carry everything else, all the things I can't articulate right now: "Thank you."
A/N: Thank you all so very much for reading this little story. I've been so touched by the lovely responses to it. I continue to be amazed that anyone at all will read my words, and you have all been so kind and encouraging. Thank you!
My BelieveItOrNot ... I don't know what I'd do without her. She's an amazing writer, a great teacher, and a wonderful friend. Thank you, sweetest. My head-to-toe twin.
What's next? Well, I'm not sure, to be honest. My own "small bump" is not really very small now - in 7 weeks, Mr Thimbles and I will be welcoming our third child. I do have an idea or two percolating, as well as an OF calling my name. I'll be writing, but it might be a while before anything is ready to share.
Thank you, all of you, for being wonderful. I appreciate it so much.