“Nothing in the world matters less to me than my father’s opinion.”
I don’t believe him for a second—if that was true, he wouldn’t insist on buying me “something suitable” to wear to his birthday dinner. I reach for a black sheath dress. It seems appropriate enough. I mean, it’s what every woman in the restaurant was wearing New Year’s Eve. I remember them—their shiny straight hair, their full faces of understated make-up, their glittering diamonds—none of that is me. Feeling like a fraud, I return the dress to the rack. The metal part of the hanger screeches as it drags across the display fixture. It’s an everyday noise made by an everyday object, but in the contrived refinement of the boutique, it sounds as out of place as I feel.
I flatten my palms against my cheeks, hoping my embarrassment won’t show. It’s a wasted effort. When I look at Edward, my face is on fire.
“If neither of us cares what your dad thinks of me, why do I need a dress?”
“Because you will care; you just don’t realize it.”
What he’s saying seems so wrong. By now he should realize I care about him and not much else.
“I won’t,” I insist.
“This is something small I can do for you.” Sighing, he rubs his temples with his fingertips. “Would you please let me?”
There’s a slight desperation to his voice; I’ve never heard anything like it. It makes me wonder what this is really about.
“Do you honestly believe your father will think less of you if I wear something I already have?”
“No, but you’ll think less of yourself.”
I want to tell him his father is not a risk to my self-esteem. If anyone is making me think less of myself, it’s Edward. I want to, but I don’t. If I do, we’ll argue and that would create a scene. So I don’t say anything; I don’t want to call attention to myself. Wearing cut-off jeans and Docs while surrounded by a sea of linen shifts and silk slip dresses, I feel conspicuous enough as it is. Instead, I focus on the electric-blue sheath in front of me and tried to talk myself into trying it on. It’s not that I dislike it; it’s actually very pretty. If I saw it on Alice I’d tell her she looked beautiful, but it’s not something I’d ever choose for myself—mainly because it isn’t black, denim, or flannel.
Sighing, I reach for its hanger. A split-second passes before a saleslady descends upon us and takes the dress from my hands.
“I’ve started a fitting room for your lady friend with a few things she might like. I’ll add this to it,” she says to Edward.
She’s been very professional the entire time we’ve been here—polite to the point that it borders on being obnoxious. I wonder if she’d treat me the same way had I arrived in her shop looking the way I do without a real-life version of Blane McDonnagh at my side.
“What size shoe do you wear?” she asks. It’s the first time she’s addressed me directly since we’ve been here.
“Seven.” It comes out sounding like a question; I can’t imagine why she wants to know.
“I’ll get a pair of heels for you to wear when you try on the dresses.”
I follow her to the fitting room, cringing.
“You must have tried one of them by now,” Edward’s voice booms from the other side of the fitting-room door. “It doesn’t take that long for you to unlace your boots.”
He doesn’t realize I’ve tried three of them. The first two didn’t work at all; they were made for someone with boobs. Not only did I not want to call attention to the fact I’m eighteen and still can’t fill out a dress, I didn’t want him to think I was a slut. Nice girls don’t wear things that expose their aureoles when they lean forward. I took the dresses off as quickly as I could so I wouldn’t have to show him what they looked like on me. The one I’m wearing now isn’t like the others were, but something about it still doesn’t feel right. It’s knee-length and sleeveless, and has a deep v neckline. Not only does it cover more skin, it even manages to create the illusion I have curves.
“I’m in the blue one,” I tell him, studying my reflection. The dressing room is palatial—only slightly smaller than the dorm room I shared with Alice. Three of the four walls are floor-to-ceiling mirrors; I can see myself from every angle. I’ve never had such a good view of my butt before, and I’m kind of fascinated by it. I may have no boobs, but my ass is kind of nice.
“That was my favorite. Does it fit?”
“Yes.” In that sense, the dress looks as if it was made for me. Not only does it fit, it’s fitted—and it shows more of how I’m shaped than anything I’ve ever worn. I shouldn’t feel exposed—it’s not as if it’s hooker-tight or trashy—but I do. It’s a sexy dress, the kind of dress that makes strangers notice you. I’ve never been comfortable with that kind of attention, and the thought of getting it from his father makes me want to spew.
“Do you like it?”
“I don’t know,” I say, thinking I would like it on someone else. “It’s so different from anything I’ve ever worn. It’s pretty…” I fumble with the straps, sighing. “I just don’t think it’s me.”
“May I please see it?” he asks.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Telling him no doesn’t feel like an option.
“Okay,” I say, stepping away from the mirror. The dress has a narrow skirt, but there’s a slit over my left thigh. Though walking isn’t as hard as I thought it would be, as I move toward the fitting-room door, I see my mom’s face heavy with disdain. I no longer feel as if I’m a young woman in a high-end Washington DC boutique. I’m back to being a little girl in bungalow in Washington State, playing dress-up in the clothes her mother never wears. The shag carpet in my parents’ bedroom is hideous, but I don’t realize it because I don’t know anything else. I walk on the old orange rug slowly, wearing a cheap version of the shoes I have on now. My mom keeps them in her closet, just in case. I scuff my feet as I move, trying my best not to topple over. Even then, I’m enough of a realist to know it’s just a matter of time.
I tumble forward, breaking my fall with my hands. Instead of getting up and trying again, I sit on the floor, staring at my mom’s shoes. Though the carpet’s fuzzy, yarn-like fibers prevent me from bruising, but leave indentations in my palms. massaging the sting out of my newly-acquired rug burn. I don’t care that I just sacrificed the top layer of skin. My future is made of fake patent leather, and not even the crude reality of a metal rod exposed by a missing heel tap could deter me from counting the seconds until it arrives.
When it finally does, it’s anti-climactic. Not only are stilettos uncomfortable as hell, I still can’t walk in them. This doesn’t surprise me as much as the realization I had zero interest in doing so. I don’t want to be like my mother—putting all this effort into looking pretty, wearing shoes that hurt and bras that itch so my dad will pay attention to her. I’d rather have people pay attention to who I am than what I’m wearing. By the time I grow into heels, I’ve already grown out of them.
There’s no question I look sexier than I ever have, and though I want Edward to think I’m hot, what I’m wearing right now isn’t me. If he likes how I look in this dress, he can’t possibly like the way I usually look. And if he doesn’t—if he thinks I look as awkward as I feel—I’ll know he’s disappointed in me. I couldn’t live with that. I want him to be as proud to be with me as I am to be with him.
When I step out of the fitting room, Edward is sitting in an arm chair beside a three-way mirror with a platform in front of it. “Wow.” He rises to his feet, gesturing for me to stand in front of the mirror. “Come here so I can have a closer look.”
I walk toward him and step onto the platform. When I wobble a bit, he laughs.
I give him the Look of Death.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’ve just never seen a woman who couldn’t walk in heels.”
Of course he hasn’t. His socialite ex-girlfriend probably came out of her mother’s womb in a silk dress and Italian heels. It makes me feel more inadequate than I would have thought possible.
“Anyway,” he continues, “I think you look stunning.”
“You mean you’re stunned by my lack of grace,” I mutter under my breath.
“No, Bella. You’re beautiful. But if you don’t like it…”
“I like it,” I tell him. “I’m just not comfortable in it.” A thought occurs to me. “You know, there was a second-hand store we passed on the way here. They had a fun dress in the window from the 1950s. It looked about my size, and it would work for dinner. Maybe we could take a look.”
“Is that what this is about?” he asks, laughing. “I can afford to buy you a new dress. I don’t want you wearing something used because you don’t want me spending money on you.”
“That’s not it. This just isn’t me.”
“And an old dress someone else has worn would be?”
“I like to think I’m my own person–”
“Then why do I need to look like everyone else?”
“If if you look the way everyone else looked forty years ago, that’s somehow acceptable? Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” he asks, laughing. “I have money, Bella. I want to spend it on you. Please let me.”
He doesn’t get it, but I don’t want to argue with him. Instead, I let him buy me the dress. If he notices me wiping my eyes with my fingers, he doesn’t comment.
November 26, 2009
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Edward and I don’t talk about our failed relationship. There doesn’t seem to be any need. We know we made mistakes, that we hurt each other, that we wasted a ridiculous amount of time. Rehashing our prior failings accomplishes nothing; we can’t change what happened, and neither of us wants to recreate our past in the present. So we choose not to go back to the beginning. Instead, we begin again.
It’s just as well. Being with Edward is nothing like I thought it would be. It isn’t political, and he doesn’t campaign. There are no canned speeches delivered with feigned emotion, no promises of a better tomorrow. He doesn’t improvise impassioned soliloquies detailing the many ways in which he knows he can improve my quality of life, nor does he try to seduce me with his charm. What he does do is spend as much time with me as he can, letting his actions bear witness to his character. It shouldn’t surprise me that they provide a glowing reference, but it does. It seems impossible that a man who lies for a living could be so real with me, but he is.
So we exist, one fabulously mundane moment at a time, doing everyday things together. The more time I spend with him, the more I realize how little I know about who he is now. He’s warmer, more open. I don’t have to beg him to let me in; he seems to want me there. What’s more, I want to be there.
When I wake up Thanksgiving morning, I’m curled against the side of his body. It’s warm and comfortable; the last thing I want to do is get out of bed, but kitchen duty calls. As carefully as I can manage, I wiggle out of his arms. I’m halfway across the room when he calls out to me.
“Are you leaving?”
There’s something different about his voice. I can’t pinpoint what it is—just that it’s new to me and it cuts me to the bone. Slowly, I turn back to the bed. As soon as my eyes meet his, I have my answer.
“I haven’t upset you, have I?” he asks, seemingly panicked.
I sit on the edge of the bed and brush my fingers across his cheek. Despite how rough and prickly it is against my skin, I love it. Stubble is something he’d never show the public. If he did, voters would know he’s human, that he’s flawed and real and capable of feeling fear.
“No,” I say, offering a gentle smile. “I have to get the turkey in the oven.”
He looks at the clock on the bedside table then back at me; I don’t think he believes me.
“At six o’clock in the morning?”
I shrug. “Alice insists we need to sit down at four.”
“She claims that’s when your family always ate Thanksgiving dinner. Anyway, there’s a lot for me to do, and I have to shower and put on clothes before I can even start.”
“Do you really want to leave Thanksgiving dinner to Alice? I thought you were tired of having Peking duck every year.”
“No. I mean don’t shower and put on clothes.” His hand rests on my thigh, his thumb brushing my skin. “I can’t think of anything hotter than the sight of you cooking for me wearing nothing but my shirt.”
“You know your shirt isn’t the only thing I’m wearing right now.”
He smiles. “I was going to ask you to take those off.”
“Right. I’m sure that would go over really well with Alice and Jasper. That’s the kind of thing I’d only do in my own kitchen.”
“In that case, there’s only one solution,” he says. “I guess I’ll just have to spend Christmas in Chicago with you.”
“You’d do that?”
“Haven’t you realized? For you, I’d do anything.”
I’m starting to believe him.
Despite the fact I’m fully clothed, Edward spends the day in the kitchen with me. Barefoot, wearing jeans and an untucked t-shirt, there’s nothing about him that would call to mind the controlled refinement of Senator Cullen. He’s the most at ease I’ve seen him since I came here, and I wonder how often he relaxes like this.
Alice flits in and out the room, barely able to contain her excitement at hosting her first Thanksgiving dinner.
“You’re insane,” I tell her. “It’s just the four of us.”
“Would you streamline the menu because we’re a small group?”
“No. Cooking is my thing; you know this.”
“Right. Well, aesthetics are my thing.” She turns to Edward. “I’m setting the table with our mother’s formal china.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” he asks.
“I thought you’d enjoy seeing it,” she explains.
“I can’t even remember what it looks like.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well, it’s very formal.”
“Okay…” He waves the back of his hand, gesturing for her to get to the point.
“Do you not remember what the rule of the house was growing up? If the china came out, we had to dress for dinner. And I’m telling you the china is coming out. Interpret that how you will. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a table to set.” She hurries out of the room.
“Don’t worry about Alice,” he says. “Wear want you want. I’m sure she understands that you’re limited to what you have in your suitcase. We can both stay in jeans, and Alice will just have to deal with it.”
“It’s fine. I brought a cocktail dress, just in case.”
He leans against the counter, shaking his head in disbelief.
“What?” I ask.
“I thought you hated dressing up.”
“No. I hated wearing anything that wasn’t my style. I still do, in fact.”
“Tell me what your style is like.”
“You’ll see,” I say, smiling.
I don’t let Edward anywhere near me when I get changed. I don’t want him to see me as a work in progress, and I don’t want his input. I want him to see who I am, that I can have good taste even if it’s different than his. That class doesn’t require money. That I don’t have to wear something that makes me feel uncomfortable to be appropriate. And then—if he’s lucky—maybe I’ll pick out his tie for him.
“May I come in?” he says from the hallway.
“Are you naked?”
“Sorry,” I say, giggling.
I may not be naked, but what I’m wearing is the next best thing. My favorite article of clothing is a midnight-blue taffeta cocktail dress from the 1950s. It has cap sleeves, a wide scoop neckline that accents my collar bone nicely without showing any of my non-existent cleavage, and a full skirt with a built-in crinoline. It’s classic, feminine, and has a kind of innocent sophistication that’s understatedly sexy. Even better—it hides the fact I’m bottom heavy.
I put on my lipstick and step into red silk kitten heels. “You can come in now.”
The guestroom door swings open, but he doesn’t come inside. He stands in the hallway, just staring at me.
He opens his mouth then closes it, shaking his head.
“You’re starting to make me nervous,” I say.
“Don’t be; you’re perfect.”