“God, this is so...surreal.”
Her laugh was warm against his t-shirt clad chest, her palm flat just above his heart. Her smile hadn’t dissipated since the moment he’d welcomed her inside in the not-quite-early but not-quite-late afternoon. Now, the sun had long since settled in the west, and they were cloaked in the faint moonlight that peeked through the blinds of his Stamford condo. His own grin pulled up all lopsided as his lips found her hair, still marvelling that he could actually do this now, memories from just hours ago creeping warmly over his skin.
She was on his doorstep, the thick July air adding a frizz to her curls that he knew she hated, but that he’d always conversely found adorable. Her arms were folded, and she was absently picking at the skin on her biceps, her cotton scoop neck shirt dotted with sweat. She was looking at her shoes, those same white Keds that had won an award, spurred a spontaneous kiss, rocked his world inside and out. The were less white now, worn with a few months of age. It was always hard to keep white white, anyhow.
He had been silent in opening the door, still not quite out of his “I woke up at noon on a Saturday and haven’t done anything productive since” haze, giving him a brief moment to drink in the sight on his doorstep, blinking back the sun to assure himself that this was real, wasn’t a dream he’d fallen into while napping on his futon in the middle of an FX movie marathon. He said a silent prayer to the sky that he’d at least been decent enough to put on a new t-shirt and pair of basketball shorts that day. It wasn’t until he’d finally let breath escape him that she finally looked up, seeming shaken from a daze of her own, her eyes glassy with worry as they met his.
Neither spoke, moved, wavered in those first few seconds, with the sun beating directly behind her head, giving her skin this kind of glow that made her golden, and he wanted so badly to reach out and touch her, to solidify that she was actually there, but her words interrupted that stream of consciousness.
“I called off the wedding.”
She was looking away again, chewing the inside of her mouth, seeming so incredibly interested in the plant that was wedged in the soil between the front stoop and the garage. Her words were more than a whisper but less than the inside voices level that his teachers had pounded into his brain since childhood. He knew they had been spoken, but he wasn’t convinced until he saw his own hand outstretched, pulling toward the hand she had tucked away, not stopping until he was gently removing her left hand from where it had been lodged under her arm and brushing his thumb oh so softly over the bare finger that used to taunt him day in and day out. It wasn’t so much as a shock that pulsed through them, or a wave that knocked them on their behinds. It was warmth, wholeness, like the final click of things falling into place.
She was smiling, a grin that stretched slowly, covering the distance across her cheeks in the time it took for him to tug her up the stairs, tugging towards her ears and all full of teeth as she crossed the threshold, that smile finally reaching her eyes when the door to the condo closed behind them. His hands were still clinging to hers, fearing that if he let go, she would disappear just as quickly as she usually did when he blinked the sleep from his eyes. She was looking up at him, the gleam in her eyes still there, less nervous and more tentative now that she was inside. Did she just lay it all out? Tell him every detail from the morning she’d arrived at work to find him gone, to that night when she’d packed a bag and left an equal parts angry and tearful Roy behind for good, to the awkward weeks spent in her childhood room with thoughts that were clogged to overflowing with him. Did she let him speak? Granted, she’d only truly spoken five words; did he really have a reaction yet?
Instead, they just...stared.
Searching the large blackening disks of one another’s eyes.
Wishing the words and the talking and the hard part could be over and they could just be.
She noticed his hesitance, the way he was still skeptical. If his confession, the one that had flipped every truth she’d known upside down, had been as longing and desperate and so real as it had seemed that night against her lips and heavy in the air, she knew he was dying inside right now, eager for some confirmation that she hadn’t just made a trek across the northeast to tell him something that had already been conveyed in an email by at least seven different coworkers. His lips parted and closed, parted and closed, the little popping noise thrumming louder than her heart as she spoke again.
That single syllable hung heavy in the air, his eyes flickering from her eyes to her lips, down to where their hands still remained clasped between them.
“Is this...really real?”
The words were sticky in his throat. He was hesitant to smile, to pull his grin towards his ears like he had seen her do. He needed to hear her say it, to put an end to the misery he’d been enduring for far too long.
“I called off my wedding because of you. I...Jim. I didn’t know what I was missing until that night. I couldn’t stay with Roy. I should’ve never been with Roy for as long as I was.”
His eyes were still tentative, urging her with the way they grew in size and in the glassiness that had covered the remaining whiteness.
“Jim? I’m in love with you. I’m so in love with you.”
And that was it. That was all it took for him to tug her hand upon his shoulder, to cradle her face in his large hands, to kiss her with more passion and more love than he’d ever thought possible. Finally, the shock was there, the spark, the electricity, whatever you wanted to call it--there it was, pulsing between their lips, the way his hands stroked at her cheeks before finding their way to the back of her head, the way that hers snaked around his chest and splayed across his back, pulling him as tightly to her as she could. That was it. They were finally home.
After the initial moments of Jim pulling back with her face cradled in his palms muttering, “Is this really real?” and Pam shaking her head insistently, tears brimming in her eyes as she clung to his forearms, the smiles were a thing of necessity. He’d wanted to take her on a real date, but she hadn’t really thought this whole thing through, and she hadn’t exactly packed a bag, and she was only wearing a pair of jean shorts and a pink cotton t-shirt that was dotted with sweat, so they opted instead for exploring the city that Jim had become acquainted with only enough to locate his office, a bar, and the grocery store. They’d settled for burgers and shakes on the hood of his car, holding hands the whole way there, knees brushing together as they shared fries and smiles. He didn’t think it was possible for his cheeks to hurt from smiling while eating a mediocre burger, but the way that the sun was setting behind her, the salt from the greasy french fries outlining the corner of her lips, the way that her smile positively glowed as she squinted her bowed head at the sheer reality of their situation gave him the most delicious ache he’d ever felt.
They’d taken their shakes to a random walking trail that wasn’t too far, holding hands in the middle while they talked about everything and nothing. He never wanted this moment to end. But as the sun settled over the water, they were back at his place, bodies flush on his futon, kissing intermittently while late night television served as background noise to their chatter that was filled partly with phrases like, “I can’t believe this is really happening,” and partly riddled with, “I’m sorry’s” and “It shouldn’t have taken us this long to get here.”
They’d gone to bed in that strange point that was too late in the night to be early in the morning but too early in the morning to be late at night. He’d offered her an old t-shirt, wondering how it was possible for his smile to stretch any wider than it could as he saw her tiny body become engulfed in cotton down to the knees. He settled instead for that lopsided grin that made her go weak in the knees as they settled side by side under his comforter, her head settling on his chest and finally feeling all of those things she’d been sure she was missing while in that endless engagement.
When she had breathed those words, “God, this is so...surreal,” against his chest, her breath tickling and warming him all the same, he took immediate advantage of the fact that she was in his arms, that he was allowed to pull her close and kiss her head without fear of repercussion, without fear of rejection. Instead, as she giggled against him he pulled her tighter and he pinched himself under the covers to make sure this wasn’t a dream, he spoke the words that once pelted him into submission, scared him more than any threat he’d ever faced, that he could now say so freely.
“God, I love you.”
It was now, in the waiting room that he had only seen the inside of twice--once while she was actually on the operating table, and again when his mother had all but dragged him out the door, “for your own good, Jimmy; you’re going stir crazy”--that the joy that once rang around those words instead brought a nauseous pang to his gut.
“God, this is so...surreal.”
It was Helene Beesly’s voice that released the words in a timid whisper, ghost-like even, while she sat next to Jim in the less than comfortable chairs, her husband flanking her on the other side.
She was talking, of course, of the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn that their lives had taken for the second time that summer. This time, however, it was not one she had approved of. It was her daughter, post-trauma, clinging to the man that the Beesly’s hadn’t always been that fond of, the man who hadn’t asked for their daughter’s hand in marriage before placing a less-than-admirable ring on her finger. They were hoping that the initial effects of waking up post-op and post-sedative in a life years prior was temporary, but after several hours and her insistence that Roy remain in the room with her, conversations with the doctor riddled with phrases like retrograde amnesia and no distinct recovery timeline, it was more than just Jim who wanted to get up and punch a hole through the wall.
In that month after she’d called off her wedding, Helene had watched her daughter’s emotions flip like a switch, from anger to pain, remorse to hope. She was like a hollowed shell of the giggly little girl whose finger paintings once dotted the doors of the refrigerator. She recalled the morning that something in her daughter’s eyes distinctively changed, the light crept back inside, and she held her head higher again. Without more than an, “I love you mom,” and an incredibly tight hug, she’d watched her daughter back out of the driveway, a phone call coming close to three hours later.
“Baby, is everything okay?”
“Yeah, mom. It will be.”
“Pam, where are you?”
“I’m...I’m in Connecticut.”
Helene’s heart swelled with pride and love, knowing that her daughter was finally, finally going to have the life that Helene had been dreaming of since she held her baby girl in her arms.
“Send Jim my love.”
But now, her love was simply not enough. She watched with sad eyes the man who loved her daughter more than life itself trying to hold on to any semblance of hope that had been torn down in the past hour of his life. His chin rested on clasped hands who rested on bony knees who tried their best to stop shaking. Her hand on his shoulder was simply not enough, but he offered her a sad smile anyway.
Jim’s eyes had been trained at the partially opened door, watching Roy sit tentatively on the edge of her bed, her hands looking so out of place clutched in the gawky awkwardness of his large ones. He stifled the urge to vomit, the pain of his gulp a fresh reminder that he was, indeed, alive as air passed through his dehydrated throat. Suddenly, Dr. Livingston was blocking his view, a hand on Roy’s shoulder guiding him towards the waiting room, the worried look on Pam’s face bringing him immediately to his feet, Helene’s on his wrist reminding him that he wasn’t allowed to jump to her rescue right now. In then next few moments, he realized that the good doctor was gathering everyone outside room 3218, this odd conglomeration of people bringing the Twilight Zone theme song to mind.
Helene was sandwiched between himself and Will. Her sister Penny was on the opposite end, nursing one of the Starbucks cups that she’d brought along on her way in this morning. His sat untouched and cold at the foot of his chair. And now, there was Roy, hands in his pockets, eyes suddenly very interested in the alternating blue and white tiles on the floor at the edge of the carpet.
This was his life now.
The Beesly’s, Roy, a doctor who could’ve been his grandfather, and Jim.
Taking a deep breath, not noticing until her shoulder softly bumped his elbow that he and Helene were using one another for support, he closed his eyes as Dr. Livingston delivered his future.