Another Friday night, another walk home from Giordano's. Cosima a couple of steps ahead, our daughter walking next to me, swinging our joined hands in between us as she talks about her day at school.
'Charlotte has a pet snake, isn't that cool?'
'A snake?' I repeat, mildly horrified.
'Can we get one?'
'Sure', Cosima chips in. 'Or we could get you a much cooler pet. How about a tarantula?'
The little girl pulls a face and shakes her head, blonde curls bouncing.
Adèle Emiline, named for my grandmother and Cosima's great-grandmother, who had come to America from Germany in the 1940s. Tomorrow, we will have had her for eight years, and I find myself wondering how the time slipped by so quickly.
'We're not getting a snake', I tell Cosima.
'I know, I know, I was just kidding', she assures me. 'Who's Charlotte anyway?'
'She's my new friend', Adèle explains. 'She's new at school this week and Miss Johanssen asked me to look after her'.
'That's nice, chérie', I say proudly.
'I told her it was my birthday on Saturday and at recess she made me a card'.
'That's so sweet!' Cosima exclaims. 'So, are you excited for tomorrow?'
'Yes!' she jumps up and down in delight. 'So excited!'
For her birthday celebration, she asked that all our family come to spend the day with us. With Cosima's sisters living so close now, family reunions are easier than they used to be. But still, that's what she wanted anyway.
When Adèle was two, Sarah was involved in a car accident. There were times we thought we were going to lose her. Cosima and Alison flew out to London to stay with Felix while Sarah was in hospital, and they stayed for two weeks while she was in and out of surgery. A few weeks later, Sarah was back at home with Cal and her children looking after her, but it was a long recovery process. After that, Sarah decided she didn't want to be so far away from her sisters anymore. Mrs S had moved to Canada a couple of years before with her new husband anyway, and Sarah knew she would be able to convince Felix to leave England too if it meant we could all be together.
So, a year after the accident, the Morrisons moved to the outskirts of San Francisco. Felix followed the next winter, moving into an apartment downtown. He was reluctant at first, hating to leave his beloved Brixton behind. But he knew it was for the best; he would get to spend more time with his sisters and his nieces and nephews, and the graphic design firm he'd worked for a number of times had been trying to get him to join them permanently for years anyway. I know he's happy here. I think he'd want to be anywhere, as long as his family were there.
The three of us pile into the house and hang our jackets up in the hall. Cosima kneels down and helps Adèle untie her shoelaces.
'Come on, Adèle, up to bed now', I steer her towards the staircase.
'But, Maman!' she groans.
'It's past your bedtime', I point out. 'Besides, you promised if you had hot chocolate at the restaurant, you'd go straight to bed when we got home'.
'And it's your party tomorrow, you need to sleep or you'll get cranky', Cosima tells her.
'But I'm not even tired', Adèle protests.
'Well, maybe if you go get ready for bed now, Mom will read to you', I say.
'Will you, Mom?' she looks at Cosima hopefully.
'Sure, honey', Cosima ruffles her hair. 'Come on, let's get you upstairs'.
Cosima pushes her along gently, following her up to her bedroom. Adèle continues to complain.
'Well, what are you doing now?'
'I'm going to read to you and then Maman and I are going to go watch TV and open a bottle of wine'.
'But you always drink wine'.
'Its Friday, that means it's wine night. Besides, Maman is French, that means she has to drink it'.
'Well, I'm half French, can I have some?'
'No way, kid, you're too little. And you wouldn't like it'.
Their voices fade away and I'm left alone in the hall. I turn away from the stairs to face the wall.
My photo wall. The one I always wanted, like Sarah's, or Michael and Erica's. Picture frames hang all the way across, from the front door to the kitchen door, and from the floor to the ceiling.
My eyes are always drawn to the centre photo, the biggest one. I'm sitting on the couch in our lounge, Cosima's arms around me, cradling Adèle. We're smiling up at the camera, tired, no make-up, and our daughter is fast asleep. That was the day she was born. We'd started the process of trying to have a baby before we got married, and just over a year after our wedding, the chaos that is parenthood had begun. I was in the hospital at five in the morning, Cosima squeezing my hand and somehow managing to keep me calm with her usual laid-back attitude, and later that afternoon, we were home with the most beautiful baby girl, never to be just the two of us again. Alison took the photo. It's the first one we ever took as a family of three. The Niehaus-Cormiers.
We'd gotten married in the spring. It rained on our wedding day, but still we took photos outside after the ceremony. Cosima's dress was strapless with a heart-shaped neckline, mine with lace sleeves that stopped just past my elbows, both long and flowing. Both soaked by the rain. And we didn't care. We laughed as the water soaked our hair, which we'd each left in our natural styles anyway. We danced, and we kissed, and our family took pictures with us, and by the end of the photoshoot everyone was drenched by the downpour. But it didn't matter to us. It wasn't exactly the weather we'd hoped for, but we made best of it. And still, after the speeches and the cutting of the cake and the first dance, we went outside again to find the sky had cleared and there was only the warm sunset and our family and friends spilling out onto the grass to watch it with us.
Felix had been the one to reveal all of our most embarrassing moments to our wedding guests in his speech, followed by Sarah, whose stories were equally mortifying for my wife and I, and hilarious for everyone else in the room. Alison gave a beautiful speech about finding Cosima and her sisters. Michael shared anecdotes about the nerdy but wickedly smart misfit Cosima had been throughout her school years, and thanked me for being the one to understand her. Papa even spoke, officially welcoming Cosima to the Cormier family. And Cosima had the room in tears as she thanked Beth for being her guardian angel. She said she had never believed in the afterlife until she'd lost someone so close to her, and all she had left to cling to was the possibility that she was out there, somewhere, looking down on her.
All the sisters believe that Beth is watching out for them. To this day, Sarah says it was Beth who helped her wake up from the coma after her accident. She found her sitting in her kitchen in Brixton, telling her she had to find her way back.
Even then, Cosima rarely spoke about the sister she grew up with. But after Adèle was born, she started sharing stories with her. It's her way of keeping Beth alive, making sure she's never forgotten even by the niece who never had the chance to know her.
As for me, in my speech I thanked Cosima for everything she'd ever done for me, or done to me. I thanked her for changing my world completely, for showing me there was more to life than anything I'd ever known before I met her. And I told her that all the hurt we'd caused each other, all the times she made me cry and all the times I let her down, I didn't regret any of it. Because it had brought us to that moment, and so I wouldn't have had it any other way.
My parents sent us to Hawaii for our honeymoon. I'd told them before the wedding that we hadn't planned anything yet, and then at the reception they came to us and just casually announced that that was their wedding gift to us. I nearly fell off my chair.
So with the honeymoon taken care of, I booked a trip to Reykjavik for our first anniversary, because Cosima had always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Like she had surprised me on the first anniversary of our relationship, I did the same for her on our first wedding anniversary. I told her I could compete with her surprise Venice vacation.
It became a tradition after that. Not so much the secrecy, because after that we always chose the destination together. But we always go on vacation when our anniversary rolls around, whether it's a road trip to Vancouver, hiking in the Andes or island hopping in Greece. When Adèle was very small, we left her with Alison for a week (which she loved, because the Hendrixes spoiled her). But when she turned five, we started taking her with us. We went to Barcelona, where she loved the colours of Park Guell and Casa Batllo, and to New Zealand, because Cosima had introduced her to Lord of the Rings and she desperately wanted to visit the Hobbiton film set.
We go to Paris every year too, to visit my parents. They've been over to California a couple of times, but it's more common that we go to them. We spend a week or two, and Adèle gets spoiled. She loves it there, and she loves speaking French with me and her grandparents and every shop worker or waiter who'll listen to her. In one of the photos on the wall, she's tiny and smiling, stood in between my mother and father in front of the castle at Disneyland Paris, and in a more recent one, there's me and Adèle and Maman at the Louvre, where we'd taken her because she'd suddenly become very interested in art. She didn't think much of the Mona Lisa though.
Cosima usually comes with us, but there were a couple of times when it was just Adèle and I. Gemma and Kira even came once, because they'd never been to France and they wanted to visit. They spent a couple of days with us at my parents' house, then they jumped on a train to the south and I didn't see them again until it was time to fly back to America. I was only assured that they were still alive by the two drunk phone calls from Gemma and a picture Kira sent me of the two of them with a huge group of young backpackers at a party in Marseille. They made me promise not to tell their mothers that they'd ran off, Gemma especially, knowing how crazy Alison could get. I agreed, but I did tell Cosima as soon as we got home, who quickly texted both her nieces to kindly remind them she had great blackmail material should she ever need it.
Even now, with Gemma at 27 and Oscar at 29, the Hendrix kids still have to sneak around under the watchful eye of their fiercely protective mother. Oscar is a lawyer, relatively new to the game but with enough confidence and drive to fool anyone into thinking he's had years of experience. Gemma's road to her dream job was a little more tricky. When she was nineteen, she showed up at our front door telling us her mom was going to kill her. She'd gotten a tattoo, a line-drawn rose on her shoulder, and we all knew Alison would go crazy if she found out. The truth was, Gemma had been dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist for years. She always loved to draw and paint, and she was good too. Back in Napa she'd met with a local studio who were interested in taking her on as an apprentice, and she was so excited, but so scared to tell Alison, who wouldn't even let her get her ears pierced until she was sixteen.
So we drove Gemma back home to talk to her mom. She wanted us there for moral support, seeing as both Cosima and I had tattoos and were living proof that having ink on your skin doesn't ruin your life. Alison did have a minor panic attack when she saw the rose on Gemma's shoulder. But ultimately, she came round to the whole idea. Now, with Alison and Donnie's unwavering support, she's living downtown and has a guest spot at one of the best studios in the city.
As for Kira, she's working on her PhD at UCLA. She chose to study chemistry in the end, and Cosima and I couldn't be more proud. Alex is starting high school in the fall. He plays football, but he's a great musician too. Sarah and Cal bought him his first guitar when he was eight, keen to encourage his interest in the old British punk rock music his parents played around the house. They taught him well.
The cousins are very close. There are pictures all over the wall from family trips we've taken, from when Adèle was tiny up until last year, when we drove down to Los Angeles to visit Universal Studios Hollywood. That's my favourite photo of them; all the kids in front of the entrance to the park, Kira and Gemma pulling stupid poses at the front, Oscar giving Adèle a piggyback, laughing with Alex about something I can't remember.
We try to take a trip with the whole family at least once a year. It's more difficult now our nieces and nephews are older and they have their own lives, but they'll always be around when they can. Besides, everyone drops everything for Adèle. When she said she wanted all the family together for her birthday, all the kids cleared their schedules. Adèle is the baby of the family, and her cousins and aunts and uncles spoil her every chance they get.
The wall mostly shows our family, but there's old pictures of Cosima and I too. From Venice, from our second trip to Paris, from Scott and Krystal's wedding, the last picture we took in the old DYAD apartment and one of us moving into our new house, cardboard boxes of all our things surrounding us, stacked up on the floor.
Twenty years worth of photos with her. Twenty years of memories, good and bad. And despite everything, we're here today, and we're happy.
Cosima is leaning on the banister, watching me.
'So, you might be wondering why I insisted we go out tonight', she says casually.
'Yes, actually', I reply, turning to face her.
'Well, Dr Niehaus-Cormier, tonight marks exactly twenty years since I first saw you'.
The dates run through my head. No, today is the nineteenth. I met Cosima on the twenty-third, I'm sure of it.
'That's not right', I shake my head, confused.
'So you remember the first time we spoke. But that wasn't the first time I saw you', she clarifies.
She shakes her head. 'I saw you a couple of days before, in the library. You were studying from some immunology book, I don't remember which one. But you were reading it and you didn't look bored or tired like everyone else in there. You looked so fascinated. I couldn't stop staring'.
'So you already knew who I was, when I sat down next to you in the lecture theatre'.
'The last empty seat in the room just happened to be the one next to mine'. She laughs, hopping down the last steps and joining me in the hall. 'Some might say it was meant to be!'
'Maybe they're right', I smirk in response. 'Why didn't you tell me?'
Cosima shrugs. 'I guess I never thought it mattered. But now we're getting older, and now … well, now everything matters. Twenty years is a long time, and we're going to forget the little things. It's inevitable. But I'm gonna keep holding on. I don't want to miss a thing'.
I step forward, slipping my arms around her waist. 'I will too. And then, when we're old, we can remember together'.
'Deal'. She kisses me softly. 'Happy anniversary, my love'.
We're interrupted as the floorboards creak above us. Cosima's eyes flicker upwards.
'Adèle, if you're not in bed in five seconds', Cosima warns playfully.
The sound of the floorboards stops immediately as our daughter realises she's been caught.
Cosima's eyes flash mischeviously. 'Get ready', she whispers to me.
And with that, she darts up the stairs, deliberately stamping on each step so Adèle can hear her coming. Then I hear Adèle's giggling and squealing, meaning Cosima has scooped her up from the landing and is carrying her to bed.
I shake my head with a laugh, and look back at the photos.
My eyes settle on a small black frame to the right, out of the central cluster of pictures of our daughter. It's the photo of the two of us from all those years ago, the one on Cosima's lockscreen that I made her change before she met my parents. The one where we're both drunk and laughing and hanging onto each other like we might fall over.
I smile, and my reflection in the glass smiles back. Seventeen years after that photo was taken, and so many things have changed. I see it in my own face as the glass in the frame shows me myself like a mirror. My face, in which I only recognise my age when I look at pictures of my younger self and see all the years that have passed by in each laughter line.
There are things, however, that remain unchanged, as if time has stopped with the pictures on the wall.
My love for Cosima is infinite. I can tell her I love her over and over, but those are just words. In that picture, you can see it.
I wonder if, after all this time, I still look at her that way. How can I know when I can't see myself, when I can't look up into my own eyes and see what lies in them? But if I do, and I hope I do, I hope she can see.