It comes back to me most vividly when I go sleep. The big, open, cold bed mocking me as I climb in, alone, for the fifty-ninth night, the sixtieth, and so on. When I lie down and pull the ugly sheets up so they lay nicely against my chest, I think of him and how he picked them out, insisting that we needed the black, almost tye-dyed set of sheets because it gave the room character. I remember how I went along with it because he was so excited, the way his tiny body bounced as he saw them across the aisle and how he ran to the other end and lifted them up proudly and told me; “Austin! These are our sheets!” I can still hear that perkiness and eagerness in his voice as I lay my head on the matching pillow; his pillow. I had switched them after he left, thinking he would come back the next night, I just needed his scent. I reached over and pulled the chain on the lamp to make the room feel as gloomy as I felt.
The darkness surrounded me and I was left to think back sixty two nights ago, the night he left and I hadn’t seen him since. He came back while I was at work to collect Socks, our cat, and his stuff, leaving me a simple two worded post it note on the counter; it’s over.
As soon as I opened the door, I could sense the anger. I wasn’t sure why Alan was angry as I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had gone to visit Carmandee and Rylee, then came home. Maybe it was because I didn’t tell him I was going to see my ex-girlfriend, but is that really a relevant detail?
“Alan? I’m home.” I call through the door and begin to peel off my winter attire. It was only October, but the Midwest air didn’t seem to care, the days were cold and the nights even colder. After hanging my coat on the rack and hearing no response from Alan, who I knew was home since nearly every light in the house was on, I carefully avoided the hanging ravens and skulls coming from our ceilings that Alan hadn’t hung quite tall enough for me to pass through without getting tangled up in the curly, black, shiny plastic. “Alan?” I called again as I got closer to the kitchen, I could hear water running and the soft clanging of things in the sink. He was mad. He only hand-washed dishes when he was mad.
I stood in the entry way to the kitchen and watched as Alan scrubbed at various plates, a collection already starting in the drying rack next to him. Socks was sitting on the counter, which she knew not to do, but Alan would let her get away with murder.
“Hey.” I walk carefully into the kitchen, not taking my eyes off Alan. He stops scrubbing, staring out of the window behind the sink, then slowly turns off the water. “I’m surprised you came home.” He comments, the plate still in this hand, still not looking at me.
I was confused, honestly. “What?”
“You saw her, Carmandee, you went out to lunch.” Alan finally looks at me. A small section of his black shirt was wet, making it even darker. “Justin saw you two at the mall.”
So this does seem bad. And I could tell Alan why I was at the mall with my ex-girlfriend, but that would require a lot of explaining and he would get over it without all that, probably.
“Do you not have anything to say?” He asks, unoccupied hand clenched along with his jaw.
I blinked, remaining quiet.
“Did you not think I would find out?” He yells, slamming the plate on the ground, causing Socks to perk up and stare at the ground, the red and black plate broken into ten pieces. He has tears in his eyes.
“There’s a reason, Alan, I can---” I start but I’m cut off.
“Three fucking years, Austin! Are you kidding me?” He asks then rushes past me.
“Alan! Wait, there’s a reason!” I follow him to the door, but it’s too late, it slams in my face and shortly after I hear his car start up and his tires squeal and he speeds out of the driveway.
My eyes opened with a jolt. This was the most agonizing pain. I knew I shouldn’t, but I rolled over and grabbed my phone and quickly opened Alan’s contact information and typed out a text; I miss you. I stopped for a second, then erased it, it was just going to go unread with no response.
Rylee was sitting across from me at my kitchen table, humming quietly and coloring wildly outside of the lines in her Littlest Pet Shop coloring book.
As it was now December, the door across from me was covered in frost and the deck it led out to was covered in snow.
“Did you get your mommy a Christmas present yet, Ry?” I ask as she switches her magenta crayon for an aqua one.
She shakes her head. “No, daddy.” Much like everyone else, she doesn’t look at me when she talks to me and instead continues to scribble all over a poor dog’s ear.
“Do you want to go to the mall and get her something?” There was only ten days until Christmas and while it was probably foolish to go out today of all days, with the snow, and the date, I figured today was as good as any.
Rylee finally looks at me and nods enthusiastically. “Can we get her a pretty necklace?”
“We can get her whatever you want to get her.” I tell her and wait for her to set her crayon down on the table and slide off the chair, luckily she had inherited my long legs and had no problem getting on and off of things.
Rylee had her face pressed against the glass case, admiring each necklace she could, she was going to pick the best one out for Carmandee, or at least that’s what Rylee thought. I, on the other hand, was looking around the store, where I could, from where I was standing.
“Daddy, mommy likes Hello Kitty.” Rylee giggles as she pulls on my hand.
I smile a little. “I think you’re the one who likes Hello Kitty.”
She giggles some more and goes back to admiring the silver and gold pieces before her.
Then I see him. Alan. I didn’t know what to do, should I go attempt to talk to him? Do I just not do anything? It would be kind of difficult to explain Rylee to him now; especially since she’s the reason we broke up, even if he didn’t know about her.
He turns and looks at me, his jaw dropping slightly. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I gave him a small smile as he did the same.
“Daddy!” I look down to see Rylee staring at me. “This one.” She taps at the glass, pointing to a simple necklace with a silver ‘P’ and a small gold heart.
“Okay, when the lady comes back over here, we’ll get it, okay? With an R, for Rylee-rabbit.” I was hoping that lady would come soon, because when I looked back to where Alan was, he was gone.
Rylee giggles and begins to bounce excitedly, her sunshine and rainbow rain boots slapping the ground as she moved.
“Rylee? You have the bag, right?” I ask for the eighth time as I lead her through the mall and over to the food court. No one told me that three year olds are constantly hungry, and Rylee only wants one thing; chicken nuggets.
I look back to her and see the white bag, her small hand clutching it tightly. “Yes.”
We ended up in the food court, got her chicken nuggets, and a burger for myself, then sat down at a table near the edge, where it was quieter. Rylee had gotten a toy with her meal and had seemed to forget all about the chicken nuggets she had been begging me for earlier thanks to the miniature Lalaloopsy doll that was placed on top of the food.
“Ry, you have to eat.”
“But it’s Fairy Fern!” She protests and holds the small doll up like it’s the best thing she’s ever seen in her entire life.
“I know who it is.” I got her the full size one just last week to give to her on Christmas. “Eat first, then you can play with Fairy Fern.”
She sighs, then sets her doll down, staring at me the whole time. She’s going to be quite the disaster when she gets into middle school.
Rylee was still carefully chewing her chicken nuggets, looking at the scene on the side of the box they came in.
I continued to watch Rylee. I wonder how Alan would have reacted if I had gotten the chance to tell him about her. I wonder if he would have been open to playing step-dad to a kid I hadn’t known about for six months. I had no doubts that Alan would be good with kids, as he acted like he was child himself most of the time.
“Daddy,” Rylee looks at me over her chicken nugget.
“What, rabbit?” I ask, using her nickname to try to make my ‘what’ sound less harsh.
“Who's that?” She sniffles a little and looks straight behind me.
I turn around to see Alan standing near the escalators, where they went up to the third floor, and down to the first. He looked exactly the same, wearing those stupid ripped jeans and my old coat I had given him when we first started dating. I wasn’t surprised, Alan didn’t understand the importance of a winter coat, it was a miracle he had survived to twenty three without one in Illinois. I bit my lip anxiously; Alan was, in fact, staring at us. His plump, pink lips parted slightly, and his brown eyes wide.
I wanted to go talk to him, to ask why he hadn’t called me back or even read my texts. I wanted to know how he could just leave without saying goodbye, how he wouldn’t even let me explain.
Rylee was finishing up her food, I could hear her crinkle her box, then reach for the toy in the plastic bag. “Daddy, open this.” She tells me, and it makes me turn around.
I grab the doll from her and turn around to where Alan was, except he was gone. I knew he wasn’t an apparition, Rylee had seen him too. I sighed and turned back to her. “Say ‘please’ Rylee.”
“Please open Fairy Fern, daddy.” She gives me a huge smile and I can’t really be upset. I pulled at the clear plastic until Fairy Fern was released from her prison and handed it to her, to which she squealed with delight.
“Austin?” I turned to my left to see Alan standing there, hands deep in his pockets, his bottom lip in between his teeth.
“Alan.” It came out as less than a breath. “What are you doing here?”
Alan smirks a little. “Shopping, obviously.”
“Right, duh.” I breathed out and looked at him, he looked good, he always looked good, so again, no surprise.
“Um,” Alan looks at Rylee, slightly confused. He stops, obviously thinking. “um.”
“Oh, this is Rylee.” I tell him and swallow hard. “My daughter.”
Alan’s eyes get wider. “Oh, oh my God.” His mouth drops slightly, and he shakes his head a little. “That’s why…” He stops and bites his lip. “I’m sorry.”
“I should go, you probably have a lot to do.”
“We actually just got done, um, you can sit with us if you want. I kind of wanted to talk to you anyway.”
Alan bites his lip. “Can we just do dinner instead?” He asks quietly. “I just, I’m not prepared for this right now.”
I nod. “As long as you promise to call me back this time.”
Alan sighs and looks down to his shoes. “Yeah, I promise, Austin.” He looks up at me. “I’m so sorry.”
When I walked in to the Applebee’s I was shocked to see Alan already there. Alan wasn’t exactly the type of person to show up on time.
“Hey.” I slide into the booth across from Alan.
He looks at me over the menu. “Hey.” There was already a drink in front of me, although I wasn’t sure what it was. “It’s a beer, Austin.” He must have seen me studying it.
“Thanks.” I grab the glass and bring it my lips, watching Alan as I did.
“Um, how have you been?” He asks.
“I’ve been good.” I set the drink down. “You?”
Alan sighs. “I mean, not great. I miss you a lot.”
“I called and texted for almost two months straight, Alan.”
He nods. “I know. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t want to admit that I made a huge mistake.” There’s a moment where he’s quiet, but it doesn’t last long. “That’s why I came up to you in mall, I knew it was a sign.”
I stared at him. I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t want to be let down again.
“I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions.” Alan sighs. “I should have let you talk, I should have given you a chance.”
“I should have told you about Rylee before it got that far.”
Alan gives me a small smile. “Yeah, that would have nice.”
After dinner Alan and I decided to walk around in the small park like area near the restaurant. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground, and more falling from the sky. The coldness didn’t bother me however, I was warm enough watching Alan walk a couple of feet in front of me towards small brick wall where he promptly slid his hand across the top to remove the snow.
“Do you remember,” He starts as he hoists himself onto the wall, shivering a bit as he sits where the snow just was. “when we first met?”
I smile and nod as I get closer to him. “At Phil’s house.”
Alan nods. “You had just broken up with Carmandee, and you excused yourself to the bathroom a few times and I knew you had been crying because when you came back your eyes were red.”
“I could have been smoking.”
Alan laughs. “You don’t smoke though.”
“You didn’t know that.”
“I know things, Austin, anyway,” I’m as close to him as I can be without it being super awkward. “I really wanted to kiss you that night.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I ask. It was new information, Alan had never really told me when he wanted to first kiss me, but I had never really told him either.
Alan slides off the wall and stands in front of me. “I’m feeling that way right now, right down to the feeling that it’s probably not the best idea.”
“I think it’s a good idea.” I tell him the truth. It had been too many days. Sixty six days too many.
Alan’s cheeks turn a brighter shade of pink. “Really?”
I nod, not saying anything. I was going to wait for Alan to make the first move. We stand in front of each other, just watching each other breathe in and out, our frosty breath mixing together. I watched as Alan inched closer, he probably thought that I didn’t notice, but of course I noticed. I knew all of Alan’s little tricks and attempts to be sneaky.
All of them except this one. Out of nowhere, there were slightly chapped lips on mine and a cold hand resting lightly on my neck.
It was worth the wait.
Alan would always be worth the wait and the pain and all of the care and concern that comes with loving him.