December 25, 1999
As our Christmas tradition dictates, Edward and I don’t exchange gifts under the tree. The nature of our wish lists is such that we’re far more comfortable doing so in the bedroom—regardless of whether we’re giving or receiving.
“There’s one more gift for you to unwrap,” he says, getting out of bed.
“You’re naked; I’m naked. I can still taste you in my mouth.” I roll onto my side and prop my head up with my hand. “I think that’s as unwrapped as it gets, don’t you?”
“This one is special.”
“As if what you did with your tongue on my…you know…wasn’t special.”
“I do that to you all the time. This is different—it’s new to both of us. I’d been waiting for the right time to give it to you, but I’m out of patience.” After retrieving a small, square box from his top dresser drawer he comes over to my side of the bed. He hands it to me unceremoniously, nearly dropping it in the process. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was nervous.
Oh my god.
This is it.
It means I don’t have to wonder how he feels about me. If he’s willing to commit to me this way, none of the rest matters. So what if he’s bad at saying it? He wouldn’t be proposing if he didn’t want to spend his life with me—and that means more than anything.
I’m trembling as I untie the ribbon and open the cardboard gift box. There’s another box inside, this one made of black velvet. Wanting the savor the moment, I run my thumb across the top it before trying to open it. It proves to be a challenge—my fingers are shaking and the hinge on the lid is tight. Laughing, Edward takes the box from my hands and opens it for me.
I don’t look to see what’s inside it; I’m more interested in what’s going on inside him. My eyes are on his face as I wait for him to say something.
But he doesn’t. After a moment, he thrusts the box back into my hands.
With great trepidation, I lower my eyes.
“I thought you could use something like this,” he says. “Pearl studs are classic, and I’m told they go with everything. You can wear them to work…whenever it is you finally go to work.”
The disappointment is brief but crushingly painful—almost instantly, it subsides to anger. When humiliation overwhelms everything else, I know. As much as I belong with him, I’ll never belong in his world. I come from the wrong background. I like the wrong things. I don’t think before I speak.
I’m a fucking idiot.
No, I tell myself. I’ve been a fucking idiot. Not anymore. Without saying a word, I get out of bed and get dressed. Arguing with him won’t change his mind any more than it will change mine, but I’ll do it anyway. I may not be able to save our relationship, but I can salvage what’s left of my self-esteem.
“I do work.”
He rolls his eyes. “You work the counter at a coffee shop; it hardly qualifies.”
“It’s enabled me to put away a good chunk of money.”
“Only because you live with me and have no expenses.”
“You wouldn’t let me contribute! You said you didn’t care if I couldn’t afford half the rent—that it would be better for me to save my money. You said all you wanted was for me to be with you.”
“Yes, I did. I still do. I just never expected that being with me would become the only thing you do. Put yourself in my position for a moment. How am I supposed to introduce you to my colleagues? ‘This is my girlfriend who—despite holding a degree from a prestigious university—is content to pour coffee for seven dollars an hour?’ I can’t help that it bothers me to see you wasting your life—what I don’t understand is why it doesn’t bother you.”
“Because I’m wasting it on you! How about the next time you’re forced to introduce me to yet another limousine liberal automaton, tell it like it is.”
“That you’re a glorified waitress?”
“No, that I gave up a chance to earn a PhD at Harvard to be with you!”
His mouth falls open but produces no sound.
“I was accepted to graduate school. I declined the offer because I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from you.” I close my eyes and take a deep breath. When I open them, I’m finally able to see things clearly. “It’s my own fault. It’s a sacrifice you never asked me to make—it would be unreasonable to hold it against you. But if it weren’t for everything else…if you weren’t trying to change me into someone I don’t want to be…”
I don’t finish my sentence, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing I could say would make a difference. His political aspirations will always come before me, as will his need to earn his father’s approval. That the best I can hope for is a distant third isn’t news—it’s been this way since the beginning. The onus to change falls entirely on me.
“I’ve never asked you to change a thing,” he says.
“But you have! ‘Bella, could you put your hair up? It’s more sophisticated that way.’ Or what about, ‘How about telling people you’re taking a year off between college and grad school rather than saying you work at a coffee shop? It just sounds better.’”
“It does sound better.”
“Only because you’re so wrapped up in how other people think of you–”
“I have to think like that. Ultimately, popular votes will control my destiny, and popularity is based entirely on perception. You’re intelligent enough; I shouldn’t have to explain to you how a girlfriend who doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut is a potential liability to me getting what I want–”
“What you want—that’s the problem. What makes you happy makes me miserable…and I just can’t…” I stop and take a deep breath. “I may not have known what I wanted to be as early as you did, but I knew who I was. As things stand now, I don’t know who I am unless it’s in relation to you.” I’m not sure when I started to cry but I am, and it’s hard to breathe and even harder to speak. “You want people to see me a certain way, and I don’t care about that. I don’t care how people see me, or if they see me at all—I just want you to love me.”
Tell me you love me. Please. It would change everything. Tell me you love me, and I won’t do this.
When the silence becomes unbearable, I go to the living room and put on my coat and shoes as quickly as I can. It isn’t until I’m reaching for my handbag that Edward makes his way out of the bedroom.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Could you be any more melodramatic?” He throws up his palms. “Grow up, Bella.”
“You want to be this way? Fine. Have your Christmas tantrum because you didn’t get what you wanted. I’m telling you right now, if you walk through that door I’m not following you.”
I don’t say or do anything. Somehow, my legs move on their own.
There’s the sound of a door slamming behind me followed by an elevator chime. Cold air stings my face, and I vaguely register that I’m outside. I walk against the wind hoping it will numb me, but it burns the way only winter can. When I can’t take it another second, I stand on the curb and raise my arm.
The cabby moves his two-way radio away from his mouth. “Where to?”
“O-kay,” he says, drawing out the second syllable. “Where would that be?”
I have no idea. There’s no place for me with either of my parents, and though Washington DC has never felt like home to me, Edward has. A voice somewhere screams for me to go back to him. Unless I do something drastic, it’s only a matter of time before I do as it says.
“The airport, I guess.”
“Which one? Look, lady, I’m off the clock in half an hour. I don’t mind running a little over for a decent fare, but there’s no way in hell I’m schlepping to BWI so close to the end of my shift on Christmas.”
“Then take me to Dulles or Reagan—I don’t care which. Just as long as I can get a flight out tonight…”
If he thinks I’m crazy, he doesn’t say. When his eyes meet mine in the rear-view mirror, the look on his face tells me he understands.
“You’ll have more options at Dulles.”
He radios the dispatcher our destination and pushes some buttons on the meter. The taxi moves but the numbers on the meter’s red LED don’t change. I spend the cab ride staring at it, willing the numbers to give me some tangible evidence I’m moving forward.
They don’t. When we pull into the loading area, they’re exactly what they were in the beginning.
“It’s a flat rate to the airport,” he says.
I pay the fare and go inside, stopping at the first available agent.
“I’d like to purchase a ticket, please.”
I’m not sure what to tell her. As much as I want a clean break, I can’t stand the thought of losing all ties to him. On impulse, I choose the town in which Edward was raised—the same town to which he’d sworn he’d never return.
“Chicago,” I say. “One-way. I won’t be coming back.”
“Do you have any baggage you need to check?”
I laugh—but only so I won’t cry. “More than you’ll ever know.”
The earliest flight I can get is at five o’clock in the morning, leaving me nothing to do but wait.
Merry Christmas, Izzy!
The chairs by the gate are hard, but I think I’d be able to get comfortable despite this if I weren’t so cold. At first I think I’m shivering because I’m upset, but that only happens when I’m crying, and I’m not. I’m not thinking about Edward or what I’ll do with myself come tomorrow morning. Instead, I focus on the bite in the air and wonder why I never noticed airports are frigid. I look around the terminal. Compared to the throngs of people one usually encounters in airports, it’s practically deserted. No wonder my teeth are chattering—more than likely, the airport’s climate control is programmed to account for the body heat generated by crowds.
I turn up my collar, hoping to trap the heat of my breath against my skin, but it makes no difference. I’m cold because I’m alone. As wrecked as I feel, I laugh at the irony. With him I suffocate; without him I freeze. I lose my life regardless, but I don’t have to lose my pride. Rather than fixate on the past, I embrace the present.
I take off my coat.
After landing at O’Hare, I ignore everything but my most immediate need—shelter. Since I don’t know my way around at all, the Hilton at the airport is my safest bet. It’s too expensive for me to justify for more than a couple of nights, but that’s a good thing. If I have to focus all my energy into finding an apartment tomorrow, I won’t be able to wallow.
Today is different—today I need to mourn. The second I’m alone in my hotel room, this is exactly what I do. I don’t fight it when my body goes limp from the weight of what’s happened because he isn’t here to think less of me for showing my feelings. When my legs can no longer support my body, I fall onto the bed, grateful he isn’t here to tell me I’m weak for being real.
Hours later, I’m crying because as much as I hate him, I love him more.
I’m crying because he isn’t here.
December 13, 2009
Edward’s touch is far headier than any wine I’ve ever tasted. It isn’t long before I’m too dizzy to stand, and we fall into bed wrapped tightly in each other’s arms. Being with him is different than I remember but not in the way I thought it would be. Despite the fact it’s been nearly two years since I’ve had sex, I’m not worried that I won’t live up to his expectations. I’m comfortable with myself now, and this give me the confidence to do things I wouldn’t have dreamed of ten years ago—such as spread my legs for him without shame or self-consciousness.
Right away, he takes his place between them.
“This is all I’ve been able to think about—your skin, your mouth…” His hips press against mine. “Your heat…” He lowers his head to my breast and sucks one of my nipples into his mouth. As he releases it, he grazes it lightly with his teeth. “…and your taste.”
“I’m done thinking.”
I brush my fingers down the front of his body until they’re touching him there. My hand closes around him, squeezing his length while stroking the underside of his head with my thumb until his breaths become moans. I rub him against me—up and down, again and again. When he’s as wet as I am, I press the tip of him inside me. Just as I’m about to shift my hips to accommodate the rest of him, he’s getting out of bed.
For a moment, I’m too shocked to speak. Before I can ask him if something’s wrong, he’s kneeling beside me with a handful of condoms. He hangs onto one and drops the rest onto the bedside table.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Having these next to the bed felt presumptuous. I didn’t want you to think I invited you here for sex—especially after the way I behaved last night.”
“Did any of the arrangements you mentioned having with certain women involve unprotected sex?”
“No. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Have you had unprotected sex since me?”
“But I’m guessing you’ve been tested recently.”
“Not exactly,” I say, staring down at the bedsheet.
“And you were ready to go without a condom?”
“It’s not the way it sounds.” I run my hands through my hair. “Ugh! I can explain, but it will only piss you off. Please believe me when I say I’d never put you at risk.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because I’ve only been with one person besides you, and though we may not have been committed to each other, we were monogamous…” I sigh. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know—later. I want tonight to be about us, and I know it won’t be if we talk about him. Just trust me when I say I know I’m good.”
“If memory serves me right, you’re very good.” He gives me a quick kiss on the lips then holds up the condom.”This is my way of making sure you’re also safe. To be honest, I’d be shocked if I wasn’t clean. But until I see it in writing, I’m not going to put you at risk. There’s nothing in my life I care about more than you.”
“Oh, I can think of something.”
I don’t know if he means it or not—just that I’ve never wanted him more. “Make love to me.”
Without taking his eyes off mine, he moves his hand up and down his length, unabashedly enjoying his own touch. When he’s fully hard again, he gets a condom. Squeezing its reservoir tip, he repeats the movement he was doing before, this time sheathing himself along the way.
“Now, where was I?” he asks, stroking me between my legs. “I think I was just about…” His finger enters me. “…here. Of course, we’d worked up to that. We started with some of this.”
He kisses me leisurely at first. Then his tongue takes on the rhythm of his hand, and before I know it, I’m almost there.
“Do you know how beautiful you are when you come?” he asks. “Please. I want to see it…Yes. That’s it, baby.”
My entire body goes rigid and, just when I think I’ll die from the tension, I come.
When I open my eyes, Edward’s smiling at me.
“Beautiful.” His brushes his lips against mine and settles himself between my legs.
I’m still trembling when he enters me.
“I love you,” he whispers.
Just when I think this is it—that it doesn’t get better than this moment. Then he starts to move.
I think I like being wrong.