"I think I don't love you like before" The words had been harsh to hear, but JJ had always been honest. Brutally honest. He had said that before leaving for a business trip, while Isabella was wrapping her arms around his broad shoulders as she had always done so far.
She blinked, removing her arms from where they were.
"I am sorry" JJ said, his head lowered. "It doesn't mean I don't love you or that I want to divorce, no, no. I still love you. A lot." He paused, looking at his luggage in the entrance. Of course he would not divorce - JJ was the type of men that would stay for the children. "Maybe things have changed and we are older. But I... I just don't love like... like before..."
Isabella took a short breath in. Her heart ached. She had never imagined a thing like this would happen.
"But I love you" JJ had repeated over and over, kissing her cheek chastely. That was as much daggers in her chest. A minute of silence passed, before JJ withdrew. "I have to go, Bella. See you next week." She let go of him and sat in the kitchen, a glass of wine in her hand. They were older? Sure they were - that was the way things went, right? The words were still spinning in her head when she looked at her ten-year-old child playing in the living-room.
JJ had wanted a boy, Isabella knew it. He had wanted a boy to teach him everything he had once been taught - to play baseball, to ice skate. So when the gynecologist had told them it was a girl, Isabella had felt her chest squeeze, but JJ had smiled.
"Seems like you're not the only woman in my life anymore" He had said with a teasing wink. Isabella had chuckled but deep inside she knew he was disappointed. Of course he had kept that for himself, but that look, that joke, it was JJ's way of dealing with adversity. Everything that did not go his way was adversity. That was a Manichean point of view - the good, the evil, what pleased him, what needed to be fought.
The first months had been difficult. The girl would not stop crying and waking up at night and Isabella had first wondered if she was a good mother or not, if her child loved her or if she had failed somehow. With JJ away, skating and managing his clothes brand abroad, Isabella had pretended everything was okay, because the Leroys were not people to whom you can show weaknesses. Alain and Nathalie had raised three children while maintaining their career at their top, working as volunteers in charities and still finding time to go to the church every Sunday. They were not the ones Isabella could tell she felt overwhelmed with only one kid home and a housewife daily life.
A housewife. The word irritated her. The status too. Being home, alone, with only her daughter, that was not what she had expected. Isabella had met JJ at Toronto University where they had both studied. She was attending her third year in the Art department, when JJ had entered in another field. He was only nineteen when they had met and they had different point of views, but she had fallen in love. Deeply in love and for the sake of his ecstatic skating career, the sake of his blossoming music projects and the sake of this clothing brand, she had given up on the potential life she could have led. Isabella knew she would never have been an artist. She did not have talent - she knew how to draw and paint, but she was well aware her abilities lacked of genius. Truth be told being an artist had never been in her plans for the future: she would have preferred to open gallery in a big city and find new talents to exhibit. Then JJ had proposed.
That had been only a few months after they had met and started dating. Isabella knew he was that kind of men, the kind that jumps to marriage right away. Maybe too quickly. He had received a Christian upbringing and believed in what he had learnt from the Bible and church on Sundays. Isabella rather defined herself as an agnostic, but for JJ she had accepted the church and the Bible. She had accepted to wait until their wedding before anything sexual happened between them. That was a small price to pay against the man that she loved. Her friends had not understood. Isabella had not expected them to understand either - she only waited for their support. They had said it was scary and old-fashioned. Isabella would have shrugged or chuckled a little. It was JJ's way.
"Bella" JJ had said when they were standing in the middle of the big room where he had gathered all his family and closest friends. "When I'll win gold at the Grand Prix, I'll marry you." That was childish and innocent. Isabella had said yes of course, a tear running down her cheek. She trusted her man.
JJ had not won that year. Nor the year after. Actually, JJ had never won gold at the GPF. Four years after their engagement, JJ had entered the room she occupied during one of their trip in South America and said "Bella, I think I'll never give you what you want..."
Isabella had not understood at first. What she wanted? She wanted to be by his side. Always. Forever.
"I'll never win the GPF" He had explained, his chin low. Isabella had looked at him. She had never wanted that from him. That was only what he wanted for himself. But she had remained silent.
"I want to marry you this year" JJ had added. That would have been a fantastic confession of love if only his tone was not the one of failure.
Marriage, it had been. On a paradise island, with friends from around the world, with family. A cheerful marriage. Her dress had been ordered in a young and daring maison de haute couture from Paris and the alley to the altar had been covered with exotic flowers. If Isabella closed her eyes, she could still remember their scent. A delicate smell she would have liked to imprison in their house for eternity.
That night had been their first night in the same room, in the same bed. Isabella had been with other men before. Not a lot - she had always been what her mother called a "serious young lady". With JJ, it had been different. He lacked of experience - she was her first after all. He lacked of patience - he had never been patient. He lacked of a lot of things that would have made things easier, more pleasurable for her. And as he was not the kind to learn lessons from the others, Isabella had given up on teaching him anything as well.
Sex was not important, was it? Sex in the head of JJ was something that was only meant to be done - not explored, not reinvented. Sex led to parenthood, period. And that indeed had led to parenthood. Isabella could not but smile at the result.
"Nathalie, bedtime in half an hour." Finishing her glass of wine, Isabella looked at the black-haired child that was playing with her dolls in the living-room. Nathalie. It had been JJ's idea. He wanted their daughter to be named after his mother. Isabella had nothing against that name. So Nathalie, it had been.
But despite everything Isabella would have feared considering the birth of a girl, JJ was a good father. During Nathalie's early childhood, he would have played with her for hours, building Lego castles for her dolls, carrying her on his back around the city as soon as possible. Looking at them having so much fun together had always filled the heart of Isabella with an incredible amount of joy. Pictures could not capture that feeling. Pictures portrayed their smile, the way they held hands or the shine of the sun, but nothing else. When Isabella looked at their family albums, she always thought that it lacked of something only her memories could return.
She would have believed that JJ would have liked another child after the first one. To give a try to a boy. But JJ never talked about it anymore and when Isabella had evoked the idea, JJ had pouted.
"Don't you think one is already a lot of work?" He had said, rubbing the back of her neck. "And as I'm not home a lot, you'll be exhausted all by yourself." Isabella had thought it was cruel, using the fact that he worked to tell her what she wanted or not. For once in ages, she had brushed his hand away, glaring at him with a harsh look.
"Don't do that" She had replied, feeling tears of anger starting to show in her eyes. Once more, she had had the evil part - just like when she had to stop the games to tell to Nathalie that it was time to sleep, to shower, to go to school. On the contrary, the little that JJ was home would always be a celebration. He would give their daughter all the attention she did not have when he was away and sometimes, when Isabella was reading the usual goodnight story, she would hear her child whine and complain about how she preferred when daddy was home. "Don't tell me what I want or don't want." JJ had seemed pained.
"I don't say never, Bellababy" He always used that name when she was upset. At first it had been a joke, but soon, it had become a defense method, to rally her behind his cause when he had done something wrong. "But Nathalie is still young and maybe we should wait a bit longer." Isabella had smiled, but she knew "a bit longer" meant never.
When Nathalie had reached four years old, JJ had insisted on her joining a skating class several times a week. Isabella had accepted and would drive the child to her training every time - after all, she had discovered ice skating along with dating JJ and she had to admit that it was beautiful. But their daughter would fall and cry out of lack of motivation every week and Isabella had had to tell her husband the truth. Nathalie did not like nor be skilled at skating. It had happened during a family gathering.
"Of course she falls" JJ's mother had said, a stern air on her face, not appreciating that a woman so apparently uninvolved with ice skating could tell what was right or wrong. "That's how you learn, dear."
"Right" Alain had added with a nod. "JJ fell a lot too, back in the days, and Marianne and Antoine as well." On that, JJ had agreed and so had done his siblings.
"Sure" Isabella had tried with a shy voice. "But Nat just..." She had taken a deep breath, ready to break everyone's dream of talent jumping from a generation to another. "She doesn't seem to like it!" Silence had followed and Isabella had looked at the toddler playing with a Barbie on the rug of the living room. "I'm sorry" She had apologized before standing up.
"Bella, don't..." JJ had tried, but Isabella had ignored him, reaching the bathroom to cry a little. To what exactly? She had had no idea at that moment. But that could not have been only about ice skating, right?
Now Isabella was sure it never had been only about ice skating.
A short time after, JJ had said that Nathalie could give up on ice skating if she wanted to. Isabella had noticed he was pained by the decision he had just made, but her relief had been too great for her to complain. They had never talked about it once again. Never. Nathalie had started to practice baseball when she had asked to do so, at eight. Perhaps JJ had seen in that some sort of treason for Isabella had noticed he had become more and more distant by that time, leaving for long business trips, diving in coaching or ice skating tours like the old star he was.
We are older. Sure, they were. Was it only about that, growing old? The other couples she was acquainted too also seemed to have reached the edge of the frenzy of youth and love, settling themselves in daily life, routine. Was it her fault? She could not see where nor when she had mistaken. Was it even someone's fault? To her saddened mind, only time was guilty. Time was the perfect culprit after all - cosy and soothing. The great opponent. One more added to JJ's list of things to fight against. But JJ did not seem to be a warrior anymore. Not on that area anyway.
"Nathalie" Isabella called once more. She knew she had to keep her bitterness for herself, not blaming the child because she was just there at that moment. The brunet rose her chin and calmly left her toys on the carpet to head to the bathroom, leaving her mother behind, sat in the kitchen.
I still love you. Isabella wanted to hang on that sentence. She loved him too. She would forever, would she? That was what the priest had said the day of their wedding.
"Mummy?" The uncertain voice came from the entrance of the kitchen, where Nathalie was standing. Isabella had not noticed a tear had rolled on her face, nor that her daughter had come back from brushing her teeth. "Is everything alright?"
"It is, it is" Isabella lied, drying her eyes with her palms. "Let's go to bed, Nat"
After switching off the bedroom's lights, Isabella came back in the kitchen and happened to wish she could turn back time. At midnight, a text came telling JJ had arrived in New York safely. A small pink heart came at the end of the message, like a promise Isabella knew he was not in a position to keep anymore.
It was not in her habits, but she did it that night. That night, she pushed the green calling button and waited for JJ to respond.
"Bella?" He asked, his voice surprised by the sudden call. Hearing him at the other end, filled her eyes with tears, but no word crossed her lips. "Why..? What's happening?" Why did she need a reason to call anyway?
"Nothing" She whispered in an apologetic tone. "I... I made a mistake... sorry." A chuckle answered.
"It's alright, Bellababy!" That name. Again. A pause. His laughter ended. "I have to go, my taxi is coming." Right, his taxi, right. "I love you." They both shivered at the words for it seemed it was more a habit than a true confession. Those words, those single words pronounced in that moment, cast doubt on all the times JJ had said them before. Isabella bit her lip. "I..." His voice deadened in the receiver. "Sleep well, Bella."
That night, Isabella could not find sleep.