She's holding the world's saddest peach cobbler in her lap, worrying at the plastic wrap, and frowning. If he didn't need two hands to drive…
"Is this okay?" she asks again. "I followed the recipe."
"It's fine." Probably. "You didn't have to. My mom's not exactly the Barefoot Contessa."
"I want to make a good impression. The first time we met…"
"Doesn't count. That was a shitty day."
She smiles wanly. "Top three shittiest ever."
In the driveway, he touches her wrist. "Okay?" She uncurls her fingers from the baking dish. They're still warm when they fold over his own.
He lays his palm over her surgical scar, as if he's trying to make it disappear.
"Somebody should've told me." Maybe things would've been different, if he'd had something to worry about besides his own sorry ass.
"Nobody knew how to reach you." It's a poor excuse. She hadn't wanted him to know. She'd been afraid he wouldn't care. "Anyway, I'm fine. What could you have done? You couldn't've come back."
"I know." If things were different, things would be different.
He spreads his fingers to reveal the incision line. He thinks, if she'd called, he would have crawled back.
They drive around all Sunday with a realtor who's really excited about bathrooms. Ray realizes Neela probably made her check the listings against an ADA handbook.
"You can stay here as long as you want, you know."
"Careful, you'll never get rid of me."
She keeps looking, but nothing's right. Wrong location, ugly carpet, bad pipes.
"I can't keep my things in your mother's garage forever."
"Keep some here, then. It's nicer than my stuff, anyway. I'm not making surgical money."
"…Maybe you need a roommate."
"Are you serious?"
As he kisses her, she says, "I'm a very serious person."
She calls him from work late in the evening, stuck in her office preparing for her first M & M, and asks if he could go to the store and pick a few things up for her, possibly, please.
He says, "Sure thing, babe," and it sounds so normal that it doesn't strike her until after she hangs up.
Babe? Well. All right, then.
For fifteen minutes, she can't stop smiling.
It's almost midnight when she gets in. He's on the couch, playing Xbox. The grocery bag is on the kitchen table.
She can't help herself. "Hi, honey. I'm home."
"I can do that myself, you know."
"Since when?" she laughs. He isn't joking.
"Since way before you got here."
"Well. So sorry I've upset your routine."
"If I wanted someone hovering around doing shit for me, I could live with my mother."
"I'm not doing this because you're disabled. Unless laziness is a disability. I was helping."
"I don't need help from you."
"Fine. Have at it." She upends the soggy clothes onto the floor, and shoves the empty laundry basket against his chest. "Enjoy your precious independence. I know something else you can do for yourself tonight, too."
He slams the door so hard she hears the jamb crack. As she stands there quaking she imagines that crack racing through the walls, splitting the floor, swallowing her up and dropping her back safely in Chicago.
This will never work, it will never, ever work. Her fury congeals into a cold lump of fear. She grabs an old hoodie, the first thing of his she sees, and throws it across the room.
She wonders if he knows he could win every row with I wish I never met you.
That night she sleeps alone, and doesn't sleep at all.
She walks in on him naked on the bathroom floor, and backs out of the room, stammering.
An hour later, he stands at a distance, and cuts her in half. "You don't have to always be okay with it. I'm not. But the one thing I never want from you is pity."
"Oh, God," she chokes. "I don't. But I… I'm so sorry."
"I hate that it happened to you. I hate it."
"Yeah, well. It is what it is. Life sucks, right?"
She steps toward him, shaking her head. "Not always."
He lets her come. "No. Not always."
At seven a.m. she's leaning over the kitchen counter in her mismatched underwear, eating Corn Pops out of a Tupperware container because the dishwasher's full. Just like old times, except for the underwear part, which is still very new, and very awesome.
For a long time he felt like he'd been cheated. If he'd been a little less lucky, or a little more determined, he would have cheated himself out of this.
It won't always be easy, but he's used to things not being easy by now.
"Hi. I ate your cereal."
It's bright in here at seven a.m.
It's hard to break the habit of not being sure of her.
At first, they cling: I'm here, I'm here; I know, I know. It's what they both need. Proof. Reassurance.
If she'd never come, he would've been fine without her. If she ever left…
But she's there, every day. He can make her smile from across the room. He can put his hands on her and make her gasp. Sometimes, as he drifts off to sleep, he swears he can feel her cold feet on his shins.
The weeks and months make it real.
You're here and You know.
It gives her a shock sometimes, how much in love she is. She thinks she's acclimated, and then in a quiet, unassuming moment--he's making a sandwich, or sorting the mail--the fall continues with a thrilling, precipitous drop.
She tries to convey this somehow, asserts her presence with fierce hugs and long, desperate kisses. She begins to believe she always would have chosen him.
He's standing on the back porch, fingers curled around a bottle of beer. Shoulders relaxed, head down, face half in the light. Waiting for her.
She catches her breath, and steps outside to join him.
When her lunch break starts, he's already in her office.
"Making sure you're not having a webcam affair with Frank."
"Good thing I use the laptop for that."
She sits on the desk and passes him a Coke. He sets it aside. "How much time do you have?"
"Why?" She narrows her eyes as he starts fiddling with the drawstring of her scrubs. "Oh, no. Inappropriate." But somehow she's slipped down and sidled in front of him, and before she knows it, his teeth are grazing her hip. "Ray, stop."
He looks up.
"Let me lock the door first."
There's a note on the nightstand: "Back in time for fireworks."
Frowning, she rings him. "Where've you gone?"
"Why on earth...?!"
"Everything's okay. See you soon. Love you. Bye."
Six hours later he comes home with a cooler and an apologetic face. "Sorry. It was the closest location." He pulls out half a dozen cupcakes and a SuperJumbo JumboMart slushie packed in dry ice.
"What...? Oh." The fourth of July.
She can't be angry, not when he's putting a silly foam crown on her head. Not if he still thinks the day they met is worth commemorating.
It takes a while to feel secure. Happy, welcome, loved—those are immediate, but secure lags a bit.
Before she'd come she'd worked herself into agonies of uncertainty: maybe they'd changed too much, or not enough, or dealt each other too much damage. Maybe they would always be haunted people.
But the days fill up quickly with work, and sex, and the delicate, frustrating, intoxicating process of negotiating a shared life. There's hardly room left for ghosts.
When security catches up to her, it takes her a while to figure it out. She realizes she'd only ever pantomimed it before.
The temperature finally dips low enough for her to dig her pajamas out of storage. He recognizes the print: cheerful penguins playing winter sports.
They make him think of staying out all Saturday night and coming home wrecked on Sunday morning, with a sack of bagels to deflect questions she never asked. She'd pour the coffee, they'd sit for a while, and he'd try not to look down her top as she reached across the table for cream cheese.
"Your hands are cold," she murmurs, but she lets him slip under the threadbare flannel until they’re both warm enough again.
One day, toward the end of the first year, he comes home with her initials on his right shoulder.
"Ridiculous," she says, and "Were you drunk?" and "I hope this isn't my anniversary present."
"It's practical," he says. "If we break up, I can get a 'D' in front of it."
Lying in bed, she traces the letters with her fingernail, over graceful serifs, sturdy straight lines, around the soft curve of the R.
"I'll be able to claim you," she tells him, "if you ever get lost."
He strokes the bridge of her nose. "I thought you already did."
He never thought he'd be one of those 'my girlfriend' guys. He always felt sorry for those guys. 'My girlfriend this, my girlfriend says, some boring story about my girlfriend.' Dude, your girlfriend's not that great, shut up about your girlfriend.
But if you're in a relationship with a legitimately awesome person, you're probably going to talk about her a lot, just because that's, you know, your life. That's different…
He thinks he kind of might be that guy. That should probably bug him more.
He's starting to wonder what it would be like to be a 'my wife' guy.
She waits a long time before she realizes that perhaps he's waiting on her. Looking for some signal that it's safe to proceed. She doesn't know what he expects. It isn't like there was a day she woke up and didn't feel like a widow anymore, and if there were, it would have been a long time ago. She shouldn't have to make some sort of announcement.
What they've built feels permanent. She wants to make permanent promises.
Oh, to hell with it. "Do you want to get married?"
"I'm not proposing, necessarily. I'm just asking."
Oh, his smile.
“How much?” They must have a bad connection.
She repeats the figure, adding, “The one my mother liked was eighty thousand.”
“You’re shitting me. For a dress? Is it made of gold?”
“Jesus. I think you need to catch the next plane home."
“It's only window shopping.”
“You should come home anyway.”
“Do you miss me that much?”
“Only when I’m not out partying with strippers.”
"I knew it. You've realized I've been cramping your rock and roll lifestyle. You'll want to be a bachelor forever. Did you record American Chopper for me?"
"Absolutely. 'Keep until I delete.'"
She brushes his hand off her ass and snaps her flat iron at him. "We'll be late for our own party. You can't control yourself for a few hours?"
"I can't help it." He crowds her at the sink. "My fiancée's super hot."
She turns back to the mirror. "My fiancé's a bloody jackass."
He slides a finger over her shoulder blade to fix a twisted bra strap, and gives her that slow, I'm-so-pleased-with-myself smirk that she shouldn't like so much, except that there's something so friendly about it, too. "And?"
They can be a little late. "And super hot…"
We were just kids, she thinks.
If anyone had told her then that they'd be here, that she'd need what they have like she needed to think and work and live in the world… Well, she probably would have called for a psych consult, and dismissed the mere idea as utter nonsense.
She would have carried it home with her, tucked it away, tried to ignore it, stumbled across it at inconvenient times, studied it, worried over it, kept it safe just in case.
The ring sits weighty in her palm...
Just stupid kids.
…but somehow lighter on her finger.
"I hope you'll tell me about it someday," she'd said shyly, once. "What it was like for you."
He doesn't know if he will, or if he could, even if he wanted to. Even if she really wanted to know.
Sometimes she's watching the news, and her face turns to stone. She seems to shrink suddenly, and he's watching her from somewhere out of reach.
There are things you won't ever know about a person, even the one you know best. Some stories you won't tell, even to the one who loves you most.
There are places you can't follow.
He sees it on her face when she walks through the door, so he closes his laptop and starts to stand. She shakes her head. "Don't bother. I'll come to you."
"Tough one today, huh?" She folds herself onto the couch next to him, and sighs. "Want to talk about it?"
He puts his arm around her, and they sit quietly for a minute. "Wanna make out?"
She laughs softly. "Later." She twists her arm around his, and says, "Thank you."
"You're welcome. For what?"
Her eyes drift closed, and her head is heavy on his shoulder.
She still finds it incredibly aggravating that he never bothers to rinse out the sink after he shaves.
He still gets impatient with her compulsive need to reorganize the entire pantry after every supermarket trip.
All in all, though, they've got things pretty well worked out. Her things go on the low shelves, his stuff up high, community property in the middle. They're comfortably settled in a familiar domestic routine.
"Are you freaking out?" she asks.
"No. A little. I'm happy. Are you?"
"Am I happy? Or am I freaking out?"
Smiling, she takes his hand. "I really am."
He shoulders his bag, and hangs back to admire her while she chews out a resident. The finger point and everything. He'd feel kind of bad for the guy if it wasn't so much fun to watch.
"I think he pissed his pants," he tells her when it's over.
"I hope so."
"Damn, you terrify me. I'm glad you're not my boss."
She pats his shoulder. "Just keep telling yourself that."
"Do you want to skip the gym tonight? As much as I like it when you wear those shorts…"
"No, let's go. I definitely feel like punching something."
She shifts uncomfortably beside him.
He takes a chance on breaking the silence. "I don't want to fight.
I don't want to be one of those couples who hate each other."
"Do we hate each other?"
"It's fine, then."
He knows it's getting harder for her every day. Once in a while he thinks, So? Where were you when shit got hardest for me? He thinks that because he's an asshole.
She's pretending to sleep. His last good instinct tells him to touch her arm―not her belly, not the baby, her. "Neela…"
A gap, then again, softer, “It's fine.”
She wipes at her eyes, fed up with crying. “God. Sorry I'm such a mess.”
He rubs her back. “You're not a mess.”
“You know I am. I always have been.”
“So am I, though.”
“Okay, how about a fuckup?”
Her laugh is hiccupy and snotty. “Okay. The mess and the fuckup. Quite a pair.”
“Yeah. You sure you still want to have a kid with me?”
She nods, sniffling. He'd probably let her wipe her nose on his sleeve if she wanted. “We might as well. I mean, I know I don't want to have anybody else's.”
"Hon, have you seen the can opener?" He stares into the box labeled 'MISC. KITCHEN.' Maybe he could stab it with the tip of a knife and sort of--
"Did you check the kitchen?" He rolls his eyes. "Wait, never mind." She waddles down the hallway from the bedroom, holding out her hand. "Here. I was hanging up sconces."
"I couldn't find the hammer. And it's too hot for soup."
He gestures to the chaos around them. "It's soup or packing peanuts."
She leaves shaking her head. "You're so weird."
He calls after her, "I still hate those sconces."
She's soaking in the bath, and she can hear him across the hall in the room that will soon be the nursery, strumming major chords, halting and out of practice: F, C, G.
It's sort of relaxing, and sort of annoying.
He hums, mutters to himself. She raises her head and listens.
“Yeah? You need help getting out?”
“Not yet. Are you writing a song for the baby?”
“Are you going to make fun of me if I am?”
“Only a little.”
“No, I think it's nice.” She looks down, says, “Lucky girl.”
F, C, G, C.
They planned and prepared. They have help and resources. Still it's unbelievably hard, stupidly exhausting, bottomlessly scary.
He lies in the dark, listening to the monitor. He felt her get up ten minutes ago. She hadn't even bothered to wake him. She could be back by the time he could get up.
He hasn't felt this helpless in years, and he fucking hates it.
Morning is bleary, but better. Neela shuffles in and plops his daughter onto his chest for tummy time while she takes her shower, the first of many daily handoffs.
He hasn't ever loved anything like this.
She’s reclining on the sofa with her feet in his lap as he massages her calves. "Mmm."
“Should we go pick her up?”
Two hours and half a bottle of wine ago, she would've said yes, immediately. “She’ll be fine with your mom for a while.”
He moves his hand...a little...higher.
She clambers upright and swings her leg across his body, settling onto his lap.
He's breathing hard already. “Hey, I remember you.” She opens his shirt, places a kiss on his clavicle. He lays a tentative hand to her breast. “Really?”
She grins, rocks her hips with purpose. “Really.”
"Don’t let her grab at your face like that."
"Aw, come on, she's just curious. It's not--ow!"
He swivels his head to dodge the baby's happily flapping arms. "Maybe she just thinks her dad would look cool with an eyepatch."
"Well I wouldn't, so let's not teach her the poking game."
"Sorry, Al, Mom's right." He catches her hand and kisses the tiny fist she curls around his thumb, then turns to his wife to add, "Except about the eyepatch thing. You'd look totally badass."
She lightly taps her daughter's knuckles with her own. "Thanks, cool dad."
They sit on the bleachers and watch Alice zigzag across the field like a bumblebee.
He loops his arms around her shoulders. "Toddler soccer is hilarious."
She turns to smile and they bump heads, sunglass frames clicking. His nose brushes her temple conspicuously.
She thinks of the supply locker at County, standing on tiptoe, heart and hair fluttering as he reached up behind her to grab her a suture kit.
She recalls waking in hospital and seeing him holding Alice, his face so near her newborn head, and the tide of exhausted joy as she listened to them softly breathe.