My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand
Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another
It happens when she turns 20. They’ve been together for six months. It’s a reasonable amount of time. And he’s —
He’s fine. She enjoys his company. He makes her laugh. He’s decent in bed.
But that doesn’t mean —
When her father finds out he flips out. There’s college left unfinished and what is her worth without a degree? (What is her worth without a man? What is her worth anywhere? Will she ever get a chance to find out?)
“And what does he intend to do about it?”
Connor’s in the room but her father looks through him straight at her.
“Is my daughter going to be forced to have this child out of wedlock?”
The horror that wracks through her makes her feel faint. Everything is spiraling out of control. Everything is coming out from under her. She’s barely had a chance to breathe. She’s barely formed the protest, “Dad! No! This isn’t the olden days!” And he’s kneeling before her. He’s grinning a little sheepishly.
“Actually, I have my grandmother’s ring, and I’d be honored if you’d wear it.”
Her father answers for her and words fail her and there’s a ring on her finger that feels like it weighs more than the whole earth.
They lose the baby. It’s common, the doctor says in a sympathetic tone. She didn’t do anything wrong. There is nothing that she could have done.
It feels like a lie.
She stares at the monitor, barely aware of Connor squeezing her hand as he sniffles beside her. All she sees is the way there’s no heartbeat. There had been a heartbeat two weeks ago and now the screen is still. There is no life growing inside of her.
She squeezes her eyes shut as the doctor extracts the remaining tissue. She squeezes her eyes shut against the cramping ache that forms in her uterus and she clamps her mouth shut to make sure she doesn’t cry out and she says goodbye to the baby she didn’t even get a chance to know.
It would be easy to break up. So many couples do after loss. She looked it up. They were 22% more likely to break up after a miscarriage. And he’d only really proposed because of the baby. She was sure.
But his eyes are sad and kind. His body is warm as it wraps around her. She can barely stand to be touched, but the solidness of his form is comforting.
As long as his hands don’t stray.
As long as his lips don’t press to her cheek or her neck.
Besides, most people didn’t even know. They had been going to tell people in a few weeks. Only the family had been told.
And their friends are so happy for them.
And he’s a good man.
She starts to resent him.
It’s not his fault.
She knows it’s not.
And if he has a few extra drinks now and then, well —
She’s not perfect either.
She thought the ache would fade. She thought at some point relief would settle in. She’d been conflicted about having a baby in the first place. Now she can finish school. They’ve put off the wedding until she has her degree. She can still have a degree, still have a career, still have a future…
She thinks she loves him. She should love him. It should be so easy to love him.
(Why doesn’t she love him like she should?)
He kisses her on a Sunday evening under the blossoming cherry tree. He kisses her and she recoils.
“Chris,” he sighs.
It’s been so long, she knows. He’s been patient. He hasn’t pushed. It’s been months.
“Sorry,” she mumbles, and she presses into another kiss, presses her lips to his, lets him lick into her mouth, and she shuts her eyes tight and tells herself she wants it, tells herself she wants him .
(It’s been a lie all along.)
They meet by chance.
Then again, maybe that’s how anyone meets ever.
The right (or wrong) decision at the right (or wrong) time.
They meet by chance and Christen sees the flashing warning signs as soon as the tan brunette smiles at her, broad and free, flashing a row of perfect teeth.
She feels a flip in her stomach as the woman’s husky voice says, “Sorry, I’m Tobin. I really didn’t mean to overhear and just stick my nose in your business. But, yeah, definitely beach over church.”
She feels the butterflies and hears the blaring siren in her mind as Tobin shakes her hand. She’s so warm. Her touch feels like fire licking at her skin. It’s almost too much.
But Christen leans into the touch, into the warmth this stranger is offering, and she feels the stretch of a smile that feels foreign to her face. “I’m Christen. And I think you’re right.”
She gets a text the next day.
Hey, it’s the rando from the coffee shop. Just wanted to prove I’m right about beaches.
It’s followed by five or six pictures of beach weddings.
It’s the last one that takes her breath away, though.
Two women, both in white, in front of an arch decorated in purple flowers, their smiles beaming, their hands clasped together, their eyes only for each other.
Christen’s known...sort of. She’s thought...Well, more like wondered in passing, really. It hasn’t been a big thing. She likes guys. She likes Connor.
She loves him.
But the picture…
The picture sends her to sleep that night with dreams of might-have-beens that don’t involve a baby in her arms for the first time in a long time.
They meet up for coffee, on purpose this time, and Christen doesn’t tell Connor about it.
He’s at work. She’s done with classes at noon. What does it really matter? He won’t care. She’s meeting a friend.
She’s allowed to have friends.
Tobin asks about the wedding planning and Christen tells her it’s going fine.
It’s a lie.
She hasn’t done anything towards the wedding since the last time she saw her.
She doesn’t want to do anything towards the wedding.
She’s not sure she wants to get married at all.
She doesn’t finish that thought though. It feels like too much. Instead she says, “So tell me why you love beaches.”
Tobin surfs. She surfs and she plays soccer and she plays guitar and she’s an artist.
Tobin lives life fully and freely and she doesn’t have a guy who put a rock on her finger because he felt like he should. She doesn’t have the heavy cloud of loss hanging over her head. She doesn’t have a home she doesn’t really want to go back to at night.
What Tobin does have is a rainbow bracelet on her wrist and a girls’ night every Thursday.
“You should come. The girls would love you.”
Christen’s heart skips a beat. Her stomach does a flip. She bites her lip as her mind wonders, “What will I tell Connor?”
Tobin’s eyes are brown and steady and bright. Her smile is a little daring.
In Christen’s head, alarm bells ring, warning lights flash.
Aloud Christen says, “Tell me when and where.”
Connor gets a second job. He says it’s to build towards their future.
It feels like it’s to stay away from her. To stay away from home.
To do anything but build their future together.
They feel like passing ships in the night. He’s up at the crack of dawn, leaving as she wakes up for morning classes, home in the late afternoon for an early dinner, almost done by the time she’s back from campus most days, then heading out for an evening shift that gets him in as she’s heading to bed.
She leaves food on the table for him. He always comes home hungry.
He kisses her goodnight and rolls onto his side.
She doesn’t know if he’s given up trying for more because more often than not she shoots him down or he’s just too tired to do anything else.
Either way, the guilt eats at her.
The girls are a rowdy bunch.
There’s Ash: tall, blonde, tattooed, with rippling muscles shown off by an assortment of muscle T’s.
There’s Pinoe: purple hair and don’t care attitude who says anything and has one of the best senses of humor of anyone that Christen’s ever met.
There’s Syd: sassy and strong and more confrontational than Christen’s used to. She can only admire it.
And then there’s Tobin.
Tobin whose smile lights up whatever room she’s in.
Tobin who laughs louder than all the rest.
Tobin who casually throws her arm over the back of the couch behind where Christen is sitting like Christen isn’t acutely aware of its presence, like it’s not burning hot when she bumps it, like it doesn’t leave her skin tingling for hours after she’s left.
Tobin who leans in and whispers, “See I told you they’d love you.”
Tobin who adds, “You fit in here.”
Tobin whose lips brush the shell of her ear and send a shiver down her spine when she invites, “I hope you’ll come back again.”
When Tobin sends a text, her heart flutters.
When Tobin invites her somewhere, she says yes before she can think of the no.
When Tobin smiles at her, it feels like she’s the center of the whole world.
When Tobin touches her arm, she leans into it, leans into her.
It’s not a problem.
She’s with Connor.
She loves Connor.
He’s working hard.
They live together.
(They barely see each other. Except Thursdays. Thursdays she’s still up. He just doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know that she’s just gotten home herself, that she’s timed it carefully to squeeze every last minute out of girls’ night before she has to leave to beat Connor home. He would mind and it’s not a big deal and it’s been weeks now, so it feels like she should keep not telling him. It’s a weird amount of time to have not told him. It’s really not a big deal.)
Tuesday afternoons join Thursday nights, but it’s not the whole group, it’s just them: their standing coffee date.
Not a date.
Just two friends, spending time together.
She’s allowed to have friends.
(She’s allowed to have friends that she’s never mentioned to Connor, not once, not even in passing.)
“No, but what is, like, your biggest fear? Not like that crap answer you pull out of your centipede phobia —”
“They have WAY too many legs! Who needs that many legs?” Christen cuts in defensively.
Tobin laughs. “It’s okay. I promise to kill all the centipedes for you.”
Her hand is hot on Christen’s knee and her words burn into Christen’s chest. A promise. No, a joke.
A joke of a promise to be there, to take care of her, in such a silly little way.
Her cheeks flush and she hopes that the afternoon heat hides the blush.
“Come on,” Tobin leans in, shoulder bumping against Christen’s, voice low and gravelly, “what’s your biggest fear?”
Christen looks at Tobin, her face close, her skin smooth and tan, her eyelashes long, her eyes curious. She breathes in surf and sand and coconut. She breathes out. She breathes in, the words “never having you” on the tip of her tongue. She breathes out, “Dying alone.”
It’s not a problem until it is.
They don’t talk about Connor. They don’t talk about the wedding.
Friday evenings join Thursday nights and Tuesday afternoons.
She thinks that maybe Tobin knows her better than anyone.
She knows that Tobin sees her. She sees her like nobody else.
And when the night comes and she closes her eyes with Connor’s gentle snores beside her it’s Tobin’s face she sees.
And Monday evenings when they go to the beach and sometimes Tobin surfs and sometimes they sit in the sand and listen to the waves and feel the spray of ocean air landing on their skin, carried by a soft breeze, Christen thinks that maybe Tobin knows, that she sees the way that thoughts of her consumer Christen.
But she doesn’t dare say it. She doesn’t dare admit it aloud.
If she says it, then it’s real and if it’s real then things with Connor —
She keeps it in her head and sometimes she thinks that if she thinks it loud enough Tobin will know without her having to say it.
The breeze is strong tonight and the sun was hot earlier, but the sky has turned to shades of gray. The sand is warm beneath them but the air carries a chill and a promise of a storm.
“I should probably get home soon.”
Tobin doesn’t answer. When Christen glances her way, she sees her eyes focused on the waves, on the fading light over the water.
“But we’re on for Tuesday?”
“Of course,” Tobin replies. She doesn’t move to get up and neither does Christen.
Heavy drops begin to fall. They’re big and cold and they make her shiver when they hit her back, soaking through the thin sundress she has on.
“It’s raining,” she points out with a giggle.
Tobin’s eyes are shining as she turns to face her, her expression serious.
The rain picks up and the clouds darken overhead, but they stay still, locked in time, looking at each other.
“I should go.” It comes out weak. She doesn’t mean it. She doesn’t want to leave.
She feels rain trickling down the back of her neck, feels it seeping it into her hair, soaking through her clothes, but she doesn’t want to go.
Rain falls in lines down Tobin’s face, dripping off her eyelashes, dropping from her chin.
Tobin’s hand is cold as she slides it through her own, locking their fingers together.
Christen traces a hard swallow down Tobin’s throat.
Her heart pounds in her chest and Tobin’s hand, cold in hers, sends warmth spreading through her chest.
She turns her head back to watch the angry waves crash harder against the shore through now almost blinding rain.