“Redheads should never wear orange.” My mother looked down at herself and cringed before twisting open her beer.
“You look beautiful.”
She laughed. “You must want something.”
“You’ve been wearing your father’s class jacket for less than an hour, and already you’ve absorbed his penchant for ass kissing. I never knew osmosis could occur so quickly.”
“It’s not ass kissing if it’s true.”
“Where have I heard that before?”
My mom stared into the sea of orange and black surrounding us, and I knew what she was thinking. She always hated P-Rade, but she promised my dad months ago she’d don a jacket for his twenty-fifth reunion so we could participate in the traditional of marching as a family. Not one to break her word, she insisted on attending the festivities even though she was now participating in the tradition of marching as a widow.
She caught me watching her and smiled. “Your father was looking forward to this so much. He’s so proud of you.”
“You mean he was.”
“No, I mean he is. He’s here; I know he is. He wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
Under the guise of offering support, I hugged her tightly. It was mutually advantageous; I knew if I looked at her face, I’d cry.
“There you are. I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t find you.”
It was my dad’s voice, and for a split second, I thought maybe my mom was right, that my father actually was here.
When my mom stepped out of my embrace, I looked up to find my grandfather, wearing his class jacket and holding a glass of scotch.
“I hope you don’t mind my intrusion. When Kitty told me you’d be walking in Carlisle’s place, I wanted to join you in paying tribute.”
My mom shrugged. “You have more of a right to be here than I do.”
Jack turned to me. “Could I have moment alone with your mother?”
She looked at me, silently mouthing that it was okay. I nodded my assent, and they crossed the parade route to where they were well out of earshot. I had no idea what had transpired between them over the years, other than the fact that he had never approved of her. If their body language was any indication, whatever it was had yet to be resolved. My mother’s arms were folded across her chest as Jack spoke. Though she’d occasionally nod, he did all the talking. When Jack’s hand rested against her elbow, I realized it that in my entire life, I never once seen them touch.
That Jack was making an effort wasn’t lost on her. Her posture softened, and she clasped his hand in hers. For today, at least, the one thing they had in common eclipsed all of their differences. I knew I’d never know exactly what transpired between them. As far as my mother was concerned, there was only one thing I needed to know about Jack—that he loved my father and me to best of his ability.
“You were just shy of a year old at your first P-Rade,” Jack said when they returned. “Carlisle dressed you up as a tiger. You weren’t walking yet, so we took turns carrying you.”
“You and Dad?” I asked my mom.
She shook her head.
“No, your father and me,” he explained. “He’d never admit it, but he wanted you to come here so badly. It’s very special to have three generations…”
He rambled on awkwardly, and it occurred to me that even though he rarely expressed his feelings, it didn’t mean he lacked them.
“Thank you for coming.” I put my arm around him and gave him a pat on the back. “It means a lot to me.”
“Me, too, son. More than you know.”
The band began to play, and we started walking—Jack holding his scotch and my mom holding her lager. I held a picture of my father taken as he marched in P-Rade twenty-five years ago. When we passed Jack’s graduation year, his classmates honored my father the traditional way.
“Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! Eighty-six! Eighty-six! Eighty-six!”
My mother smiled as she waved at Jack’s friends, but by the time we reached the Class of 1993, her eyes were wet.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I am now.” She squeezed my hand, angling her head toward the enormous 1993 banner. “This was the year we had you.”
Each subsequent year passed quickly, the costumes and signs of its members enabling them to relieve theirs pasts, if only briefly.
They weren’t the only ones.
“Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! Oh-seven! Oh-seven! Oh-seven!“
I needed to stop jerking off. Though I knew from my dad’s medical textbooks that going blind from excessive masturbation was a myth, but I wasn’t entirely sure it couldn’t cause me to go insane.
She was here.
The girl from the painting, the girl of my dreams, the girl to whom I ruined a perfectly good MacBook jerking off was here.
I didn’t know who she was, but I knew I needed to find the boys’ room pronto so I could hide my boner in the waistband of my pants and pull out my shirt…but only after I got a closer look at her. Something told despite my general disdain for my peers, that she was different, that she was the one for me, that if I knew her, I’d love her.
Though everyone was moving to their next class, she stood fixed in a classroom doorway, watching the hall traffic go by. I wondered why she didn’t seem to be in any hurry until I was close enough to see she was wearing a suit and very high heels, holding a teachers’ edition grammar textbook with “I. Swan” written on the cover in black Sharpie.
Of course she wasn’t concerned about being late; she didn’t have to go anywhere. The girl of my dreams wasn’t a girl at all—she was a woman who also happened to be a teacher at my high school.
Could fate be any crueler?
“Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! Two Thousand Ten! Two Thousand Ten! Two Thousand Ten!“
We’d been sitting on our bench at the Art Museum for thirteen minutes, and Bella still wasn’t able to look at me. I knew why she was afraid, I just wished she’d talk to me about it.
“Nothing needs to change, you know,” I reminded her. “We’re still us. I’m still me.”
She sighed. “Going off to college is huge. You will change, Edward. We will change. There’s no getting around that.”
“We’ll change or the better.”
It was as if she didn’t believe me, so I wasn’t at all surprised when she changed the subject.
“Aren’t you nervous?”
“Not really. I know that sounds cocky. I suppose I should be nervous about my ability to keep up with my course load, but I have no doubt I can do it. I’m actually looking forward to the challenge. Nothing else is really a concern to me.”
I pulled her to her feet. “Come on.”
We walked through the modern gallery, past the room filled with Duchamp, to the dark corner which housed Étant donnés.
“Do you remember the last time we were back here?”
“You were so—for lack of a better word—commanding.”
I couldn’t control my laughter. “That’s how it came off to you? I was terrified. I knew I needed to change your perception of me, to get you to see me as a potential suitor. I thought showing you the Waterfall would let me know once and for all if you could be interested in me romantically.”
She stared at me in disbelief. “It was a test?”
“Pretty much, yes. It was just you and me, in the presence of erotica. You would either admit to yourself you could find me arousing, or you would be completely revolted. Either way, I’d have my answer. But when you arrived, all I could think of was how badly I wanted to kiss you. Did you know that I could see the outlines of your nipples through your tank top?”
She shook her head.
“Not only that, but your skirt hung low on your hips, and I kept getting glimpses of skin. I had no intention of touching you, but you were torturing me. I’d planned on being completely respectful, of waiting until I’d taken you out on a real date to make my move. But when you leaned in to look more closely…” I gestured toward the doors. “Go ahead, Bella. Look.”
She turned around and did as I asked, and I continued.
“Your shirt rode up ever so slightly in the back and I could see the top of your thong. Suddenly, I needed to touch you, and this…” I rested my hands on her hips. “…Seemed like the safest place. I could lean into you and feel you against me…” I pressed my chest against her back and whispered into her ear. “…while sparing you my hard-on.”
“You were hard?”
I pulled her against me so she could feel for herself. “Then and now. Still, I didn’t want to assault you with it. I just wanted to see if you were as attracted to me as I was to you, and if I could arouse you the way you did me.” I turned her to face me and ran my hands up her sides, brushing my thumbs against her nipples.
“I very nearly kissed you. I wanted to more than anything…”
“Why didn’t you?”
I smiled. “I couldn’t. You were still making me call you Ms. Swan.”
“I stupidly thought I wouldn’t fall for you if I had the constant auditory reminder of my position of authority.”
I rolled my eyes. “Look how well that worked. Do you know why I wanted to come here?”
“No. I know you fear change, Bella. But can’t you see? It’s only been three months since that day, and we’ve changed so much already…”
“Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! Two Thousand Eleven! Two Thousand Eleven! Two Thousand Eleven!“
“You’re doing the right thing,” my dad said, tucking my keys into his pocket.
“By giving up? That’s something I never thought I’d hear from you. Or do you mean in choosing to be with Kate rather than mope over Bella?”
“You aren’t choosing Kate; you’re choosing to live. Don’t ever lose sight of that. If you don’t put yourself first, no one else will.”
“Except for you and Mom.”
“We won’t always be here.”
“Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! Two Thousand Twelve! Two Thousand Twelve! Two Thousand Twelve!“
“I want to see you blow out your birthday candles.”
Bella rolled her eyes. “You realize there are twenty-eight of them, right?”
“It is customary to light one for each year your life, yes.”
“I’m sorry. Here I thought…” she whined.
“You went through so much trouble to bake me a cake; I’d hate to see you light it on fire.” She threaded her fingers through the belt loops of my jeans, pulling me against her. “If you really wanted to see me blow, you’d take your cock out of your pants and put it in my mouth. I’ll even lick icing off it.”
“That would be celebration of me…or my omnipresent virility, anyway. I want to celebrate you.”
“That’s the thing you don’t understand—you already have.”
“Baking a cake wasn’t hard; you do it for me all the time.”
“I’m not talking about dessert.”
“If you don’t blow out your candles, you may not get your birthday wish.”
“You love me,” she said, resting her head against my shoulder. “I wouldn’t dare to wish for more.”
“Hip! Hip! Rah! Rah! Rah! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Boom! Boom! Ah! Fourteen! Fourteen! Fourteen!“
“I’m going to ask Bella to marry me.”
My mom leapt to her feet and threw her arms around me. “Oh, baby, I’m so happy for you.”
“Do you think you could help me shop for a ring? I mean, I think I’d be a pretty good judge of her taste, but it never hurts to have a second opinion. Besides, I’m fairly sure she’d want an antique, and I wouldn’t begin to know where to find a reputable dealer.”
She took off her engagement ring and pressed it into my palm. “Give her this.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. “It’s been in your father’s family for over a hundred years. Kitty gave it to your father to give to me during his estrangement from Jack. It was her way of letting me know that she accepted me, even if Jack never would. I want Bella to have it, even if she decides she’d prefer something less ostentatious to symbolize your engagement. Besides, I already think of her as my daughter.”
“Thank you,” I said, placing the ring inside the pocket of my jeans. “Will I see you at P-Rade this afternoon?”
“I wouldn’t miss the sight of you in your very own beer jacket for anything.”
I laughed. “Now you sound like Dad. Decide to jump sides in the Princeton/Penn rivalry?”
“Never! Besides, since you’re going to med school at my alma mater in the fall, I can finally claim you as well.”
The parade route was much shorter this year than when I’d walked with my father’s class. Because we were the current year’s graduates, there were no younger graduates to salute us. Though being surrounded by people older than me was nothing new, it no longer bothered me. There were things that mattered far more, such as shared experience. That was why Bella insisted that I share this experience with my friends. She kissed me and told me she’d see me on the other side. I didn’t argue with her, because I knew she was right. After graduation, I had when I’d next see Angela or Kate, but Bella would always be there.
When the parade was over, Bella was waiting for me exactly where she said she’d be—two hundred feet beyond Shirley, surrounded by a throng of spectators. In my haste to get to Bella, I tripped and slammed into her.
She wrapped her arms around me, laughing. “Let’s hope your Latin is better than your alcohol tolerance; otherwise your speech at graduation will very interesting.”
“I’m not drunk.”
“Really? Then why can’t you walk?”
I didn’t answer her question. She’d only make fun of me if I told her that she completed me, that I didn’t feel whole outside of her presence, that I tripped in my haste to return to her side. I now understood what my father meant when he said he loved my mother with an intensity he couldn’t begin to articulate. For emotion like this, there are no words.
Two seconds was all it for me to know I’d love her as long as I breathed—so what if it took me eighteen months to figure out that it takes more than that for a relationship to work?
I thought of this as I took the podium in my commencement robe, and how much my life had changed in the past four years. Adhering to tradition, I addressed my classmates in Latin, ending with a tribute to my dad:
Pone merum et talos. Pereat qui crastina curat.
Four years was a long time, but nothing compared to the twenty years, ten months and six days it took me to realize I was exactly like my father. Well, almost. Unlike him, I was a slow learner.