Songs I rocked to write:
'Transatlanticism' by Wenzel Templeton & Robert Pegg
'Holding a Heart' by Girl Named Toby
I can feel that something has changed between us. An anomalous shift in our dynamic. And while I am cognizant of it, I don't know what it means...or what to do with it.
How to act.
How to stay.
How not to flee.
There are moments when he's nearby that my feet squirm inside my shoes and my eyes scan for an exit.
I'm not naïve about the last time I lost control around him. I remember what happened as a result. What happened when I abandoned my instincts in favor of a momentary release.
Yet somewhere inside of me, tucked away too far to override my practiced defenses, there is a growing curiosity. A splinter of intrigue embedded in the thick skin of the very isolation I had depended on. It doesn't call attention to itself, lying in wait and giving no cause for removal. But as time passes and he moves closer, I know that it will begin to irritate me. To fester and infect everything around it and soon, I will have no other choice but to tend to it. To inspect and analyze this hunkering part of myself that isn't happy in the shadows.
The part that wonders what the sunlight would feel like on my skin.
The part that imagines how the world would look if I surrendered the death grip I keep on my armor.
The very part that, for the time being, causes me to forget to wish Edward Cullen away.
“Are you busy tomorrow?”
“I don't know about you, but I could use a change of scenery.”
I look over at him and try to guess where he's going with this. It's been a week since that night outside the restaurant. I wouldn't say things are easier between us, but we've progressed from painful awkwardness.
“What are you talking about?”
He raises his eyebrows in challenge.
“Are you busy tomorrow?”
I narrow my eyes at him in annoyance. He's taken up doing this. Being intentionally antagonistic to coax words from me. What's even more annoying is that it works most of the time, though sometimes not in the way he intends it to.
“It depends on why you're asking.”
It seems the annoyance has transferred to his side of the bench. He rolls his eyes at me and looks out over the lake.
“I thought maybe we could... do something. Maybe get some lunch?”
He still isn't looking at me and it gives me the opportunity to watch him. Over the last week, I've noticed things about him. Small, inconsequential things.
The way his mouth purses when he's thinking.
The way he cups one hand over the other to crack his knuckles.
And his eyes. I'd spent so long avoiding his stare. I'm not sure exactly when I stopped, maybe when he stopped pushing so hard, but they're his tell. He holds everything behind them in this severe kind of way. His eyes give him away every time.
I can't see his eyes right now, but his leg is bouncing and he scratches the fingers of one hand through his hair. I don't realize how long I've stayed silent, but he must interpret it as an answer.
“We don't have to. It was just an idea, Isabella. I just thought... Just never mind.”
He's suppressing his irritation. His voice is tight and his smile is small and weak, slipping from his face too quick to be genuine. He sighs and looks away again.
Just like that, any lightness has vanished. He's frustrated and I feel ridiculous for being the one that makes all of this so difficult. But I don't know how to fix it. I don't know how to relax into this with him. He's admitted to feeling guilty about our past. It's that guilt that prevents me from feeling like anything more than an obligation to him.
Even still, I haven't lost the spark of defiance that I first felt Friday night sitting on that bench with him. I can do this. I take a deep breath and plunge in.
He looks up, surprised and maybe even a little skeptical. He regards me the same way he did Friday night when I displayed my ability to be humorous. The expression on his face is almost comical.
Slowly, he nods his head and purses his lips.
He crosses his arms over his chest and relaxes against the bench, the embodiment of casual and aloof. But as he glances over at me one last time, I catch it. A glint of something. A flash of satisfaction.
His eyes give him away every time.
He doesn't show the next morning to run. Once I'm back home, showered and dressed, I still have almost three hours before I have to leave. So I kill the time with cleaning and running errands. Before I know it, it's half past eleven and I'm backing out of my driveway. When he'd suggested we meet at a diner in downtown Seattle, I was hesitant. Avoiding that part of town has become ingrained in me, but I bit my tongue, not wanting to explain to him why.
Walking through the entrance of The Haymount, I'm greeted immediately by the hostess and give her Edward's name. It feels familiar somehow, to be associated with him this way. I'm escorted toward the back of the restaurant to where Edward is sitting at a two-seater table. His dark blue suit jacket hangs on the back of his chair and he's busy looking down at his phone. When he hears our approach, he pockets his phone and stands. I recognize the gesture, of course I do, but it slows my steps and I pause before I sit. The hostess looks between Edward and I as she places a menu on the table in front of me.
“Ma'am, is everything okay?”
Edward furrows his brow and gives me a questioning look that only serves to make me feel ridiculous for the way I'm reacting to simple etiquette. I swallow and look at her.
“Fine. Everything is fine, thank you.”
I quickly settle into my chair as Edward lowers himself into his. He smoothes the palm of his hand down the front of his tie to keep it from lying on the table top. It's a dark burgundy color the contrast of his pale skin against is... beautiful. I realize that he's still watching me and busy myself with unfolding my napkin and sliding it across my lap. The hostess leaves as out waiter approaches.
“What can I get you to drink?”
“Water with lime, please?”
“I'll be right back with that, ma'am.”
Edward breaks the silence once the waiter walks away.
I shrug my shoulders at him, unused to explaining my preferences. Silence settles between us again as I browse the menu. The waiter returns with my water and asks what we'd like to eat. I decide on a simple salad and bowl of soup, but Edward surprises me with his order. I guess I just never took him for a burger and fries kind of guy.
Once the waiter is gone again, I smooth the napkin across the top of my thighs and try to think of a safe conversation topic. When I look up at Edward, he's sipping his own ice water and I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that he looks as clueless as I feel right now. When he sets his glass down, I decide to bite the bullet. I blurt the words out before I can over think them.
As soon as I say it, I splutter through an explanation.
“I... I just meant...you aren't as... That you used to be-”
“That isn't what I was going to say.”
“I'm sure you were thinking it.”
“You can say it, Isabella. I think you've earned it.”
He speaks the last five words with a sincerity so fierce that I have to look away from him.
“So... event planning, huh?”
I'm grateful for the subject change, but not crazy about the direction it's taking us.
“How'd you get into that?”
He seems interested, but I hesitate. Talking about myself is something I just... don't do. Ever, if I can avoid it. I look across the table at him and I wonder if he's as out of practice as I am.
“Accidentally, I suppose.”
He doesn't ask me to elaborate with words, but with an open face and curious eyes. Always with the eyes.
“In my last year at U-Dub, I was part of a mandatory mentoring program. I was matched with Kate Fisher. She owns Windsor Events. After I graduated, she offered me a position. I guess I just sort of...fell into it.”
He nods, but a shadow passes over his face.
Reflexively, I look for any sign of anger from him, but find none. He lowers his eyes to the table top and rubs his thumb over a spot on the black linen. If anything, he appears... contrite. It doesn't seem like he could lift his eyes to mine even if he wanted to.
“Uh, yeah. It was my first assignment actually.”
Without looking up, he nods, still tending to the spot on the table. The silence thickens between us. Though there was a time I welcomed its company, it only serves to agitate me now. Edward shifts back in his chair and scratches the side of his neck. My leg begins to bounce. I take a deep breath and guide us back into safer waters.
“What about you? What do you do?”
His shoulders sag with relief and he smiles slightly.
“I'm in architecture.”
I'd deduced that much years ago. A brief flash of him pacing and raging at someone over the phone about 'plans' and 'breaking ground' occurs to me.
“Really? And how'd you get into that?
I throw his question back to him and he surprises me when he smiles even wider.
“Not at all on accident. It's the only thing I ever really wanted to do. When I was a kid, all I did was sketch and draw and paint. It never really changed... it just evolved as I got older.”
There's this far away look on his face. Pride colors his cheeks and even though he hasn't offered much information, he speaks with such passion. I've seen Kate with that same look. I feel a pang in my chest. A longing to know how they feel. He waves a hand and shrugs.
The waiter is back and placing our food in front of us, saving both of us from awkward silence. When we're alone again, I look up and my spoon freezes between my bowl of soup and my mouth. Edward is unbuttoning the sleeve of his pale blue dress shirt and rolling it up. When he gets to the elbow, he switches to the other arm and repeats the process.
With sickening speed, I'm transported years and miles away. I'm standing in a hotel penthouse watching Edward stalk toward me, rolling up his sleeves. His eyes alone pin me in place, dark and cold and empty. Slow and methodical, he closes in on me, a taunting tilt to his head and a wicked smile across his face.
I blink my way back to the present, but still don't move or make a sound as I watch him.
Once both sleeves are rolled up, he scoots forward in his chair and reaches for his burger. He picks it up, takes a large bite, and sets it back on the plate. Ketchup smears one corner of his mouth and he licks some off of his thumb before wiping his hands and mouth with his napkin. His cheeks are puffed out as he chews and swallows before picking up a fry and dragging it through a puddle of ketchup on his plate. He's just dragged a fry through a puddle of ketchup when the clang of my spoon dropping into my bowl of soup catches his attention. His eyes fly to mine and it's his turn to freeze. Swallowing the rest of his mouthful, he gestures to his plate and I don't understand the abashed look on his face.
“Sorry. I skipped breakfast this morning. I'm starving.”
He pops the fry in his mouth and wipes his hands with his napkin again as he sits back in his chair and reaches for his water. I'm confused for only a moment before I realize that he thinks I was put out by his table manners. Still too stunned to say anything, I simply wave my hand at him and shake my head. Silently, I grapple with the differences between the Edward from my flashback and the one that sits across from me now. Cruel and volatile has made way for quiet and serious. He's still unpredictable, but calmed in a way. He's even polite... on occasion.
The old Edward never would have invited me to lunch.
He never would have apologized to me. Repeatedly.
He never would have bothered to ask me about myself.
He never would have opened a door for me.
He never would have stood from a table upon my arrival.
He wouldn't be here across from me sharing awkward conversation and stuffing his face greasy diner food.
He wouldn't be here. Trying.
When I look back up at him, he's already watching me and nods toward my food in concern.
“Is everything okay? Did you want something different?”
I'm not bold enough to speak the words to him in their true context, but I manage to get them out just the same.
“No. No, I think I'm good with this.”
“Where are you from, Isabella?”
It's Tuesday evening and we've just met and eaten a late dinner at The Haymount again. It's a convenient distance from from both Windsor Events and Edward's firm, Richter, Allan & Lavery. We're having coffee afterwards, mine black, and Edward's... well, loaded. I rotate the white ceramic cup in a circle on the small saucer it was served on and stare down at its dark contents.
“Uh, Forks. It's a little town a few hours away actually.”
“I've heard of it. Never been there though.”
“You aren't missing much.”
I don't mean to set fire to the words, but I do. And when I look at him, I know he gets the message that the topic isn't a welcome one. Suppressing a sigh, I decide that expressing curiosity about him may deflect his own about me.
It's what I tell myself anyway.
“What about you? Are you from Seattle?”
His jaw ticks. It's fast. So fast, and slight, but I caught it.
I don't know why he'd lie about such an inconsequential thing, but it feels like he is. He sips coffee and my eyes fall to his tie. To the small, dark stain that mars it. I think back to twenty minutes ago when Edward has practically inhaled his steak and baked sweet potato. Propelled by the desire to avoid his questions, I decide to try my hand at initiating conversation instead.
Keep the focus on him.
“Did you skip meals again today?”
He nods and rubs at the stain before smoothing down his tie. I've seen him do it several times in the last hour or so. Another habit I take note of.
“I did. Breakfast and lunch this time. Busy day.”
“Hence the lack of nutrition.”
That earns me a small smirk. I didn't try for it, but I find that I don't mind it so much now that it's here.
“Yes. It also explains my heinous etiquette at dinner. I guess I should at least try to fit breakfast in from now on.”
“They do say that it's the most important meal of the day.”
It feels like such an unbelievably cheesy thing to say and I immediately regret it. Except his time, when he lifts his coffee cup to his mouth, his eyes seem to smile at me over the brim of it. It's too much though, and I look away, clearing my throat and avoiding his gaze.
Days later, we're under the willow when I realize that something is off with him. Instead of sitting on the ground or even the bench like he normally does, he's standing at the edge of the lake. His back is to me and his hood is up. His hands are pushed down into the front pocket of his jacket. It causes the dark gray nylon to pull down on his shoulders and stretch taut across the top of his shoulders. They're broad and solid, and I feel embarrassed and confused for enjoying the sight of them rising and falling as his breathing calms from our run.
I clear my throat as he turns to face me, but doesn't look at me. I can't tell if it's because of his hood, but his eyes look tired and heavy. He wipes a hand over his face and kicks at a few stones lying at his feet. I follow them one by one as he launches them into the water. They splash and plunk, peppering the stillness of the water with overlapping ripples.
My attention is drawn back to him when he plops down on the other end of the bench and sighs.
“I'm leaving town tomorrow. I'll be gone for a few days.”
I'm not sure what he wants me to say. There are plenty of mornings I don't see him. I'm not sure why this time warrants a warning.
He turns to look at me, his eyes glancing back and forth between my own. He doesn't say anything for so long that I begin to fidget and look away, unsure of what to say next.
“I wasn't always this way, you know?”
He words are like a question, but there's a twinge of defensiveness to it.
“But... you can't come back from some shit. Some things just... change you. And there isn't any going back to what you were.”
Our eyes meet again and I know I'm not mistaken this time. He's searching, waiting. Seeking something.
I blink at him, floundering for a clue. I open my mouth to speak, but change my mind and close it back. Pressure builds in my chest and I wring my hands in lap. They've begun to sweat. Closing my eyes and turning my face away from him, I swallow down the bitter taste of failure and feel the dead weight of it in my stomach.
“We should head back.”
I stand quickly and leave without looking back.
“...so that was the general idea we had in mind. What do you think?”
It's fabricated for their benefit and I wield it like a shield between us.
“I think it sounds wonderful, Mr. Graham.”
I deliver the words with a practiced warmth.
“Really? You're sure it isn't a little...cheesy? I mean, we don't want to embarrass her. We just want to do something special for her. She's worked so hard these last eight years. It's more than just her graduating... We're so proud of her. We...well, we just want to make sure she knows it.”
I stiffen in my seat as I listen to Mrs. Graham speak now. Her smile is warm and her eyes are kind. Even her tone of voice is affectionate. She's genuine. Loving.
I watch as Mr. Graham reaches across the space between their chairs to take his wife's hand in his own, their faces bright testaments to her words. The sincerity is asphyxiating and I'm quiet for a beat longer than I should be.
Another smile, close mouthed because I can't help gritting my teeth. Shaking my head and maintaining eye contact with him, I do my job. I reassure. I encourage.
The words burn like acid in my throat.
“I don't think it's cheesy at all. As a matter of fact, I think it's very thoughtful of you. And I can guarantee you that she'll love it.”
They beam with pride, blind and deaf and dumb to the envy I feel for a woman I've never even met. My pride feels taunted and teased. And when my thoughts drift back to an old, worn tire swing, I stamp it down, redirecting the conversation and denying myself time to compare and contrast.
“Now, let's talk venues, shall we?”
We discuss locations and budgets, running numbers and setting a date. I've done this a thousand times before and yet, despite my obligation to be professional, there is an ember deep inside of me that refuses to be extinguished by my pretenses.
Three rings. Then four. Then five. In the place of the sixth is a robotic female voice telling me to leave a message. Then a beep.
I open my mouth and take a breath, preparing to speak.
I close my mouth, only to open it and take another breath.
I close it after the second beep sounds. The phone slides further down my palm and away from my ear. The hand that clutching the phone falls limply to my lap. I stare out of my bedroom window, up at where the treetops meet the night sky. Sage green twists and twirls across a bruised, midnight blue. I watch the leaves dance and smell the rain in the breeze that blows hard across my face. Lightning flashes in the distance and I tighten the throw around my shoulders. I want it all to distract me. I want it to rebuke and banish. When the thunder begins, I pray that the sound of it will chase this nameless sensation from my flesh. But it all fails me. And I'm left alone in my head.
When I fall into bed, I silently beg for reprieve. I thirst for indifference.
I'm granted nothing.
It feels like only minutes from the time I close my eyes until the blare of my alarm clock startles them open again.
I rise, dress and walk down the stairs in a fog.
Standing at the foot of the staircase, I run my hands through my hair and clench them at my scalp. I shut my eyes tightly against the silence. It used to be that it insulated me. It was welcomed and familiar. But now it stabs and taunts and torments, leaving a blank space for everything and anything unwanted to reside.
Julie Graham is of average height and weight. Her hair is a dirty blonde, her eyes dark. There is nothing spectacular about the black cocktail dress she's wearing or the basic black heels that carry her around the room as she mingles and chats.
There is nothing spectacular or striking about her. And yet I can't take my eyes off of her.
I've had hundreds of clients. I've been witness to hundreds of celebrations. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations, engagements, promotions, baby showers, bar and bat mitzvahs. Observing the festivities from the sidelines is what I do. I orchestrate and oversee, all while remaining merely a spectator. But tonight, a bitterness bordering on enmity churns inside of me. It seizes me by the throat and impairs my awareness. My duties fall to the wayside and I'm rooted in place, staring at this woman.
I look on as the evening's guest of honor poses for the photos. Sandwiched between Mr. and Mrs. Graham, she smiles and nods at something the photographer says. Mrs. Graham reaches around and slides the strap of Julie's dress into place so that her red bra strap is no longer showing and winks at her. The two women share a sly look before once again facing the camera. It's an intimacy so foreign to me that I can't help but stare. When Mr. Graham kisses his daughter on the cheek before releasing her and heading to the bar, I spin around and stomp away, feeling the acidic burn of envy as it snakes its way through my chest.
I only nod at him, his voice like knives across my flesh. The spite I feel from yesterday's client meeting is so concentrated that I don't trust my tongue. Ignoring the way his head swivels to watch me walk past him, I push my earbuds in and begin running at full speed. There'll be no easing into it today. I can't stand being still right now. My limbs feel restless and sluggish all at once so I don't waste time warming my muscles up.
I want to feel them burn.
I push and push, hands fisted so tightly that my palms throb. I push harder still, pumping my legs until I feel that delicious ache in my thighs. Until the cold air burns my throat and numbs my cheeks. A heavy bass beats through the headphones and I welcome the itch it causes in my ears. The small earbuds crackle at max volume and still it isn't loud enough. I can hear it all. I can see everything. It stops nothing. The noise can't reach the commotion in my head.
Faster than I expect, I see the lake up ahead. My momentum propels me down the hill and I grab for the trunk of the willow, snatching myself to a dead stop. The music stops abruptly and I stare down at the black screen of my iPod, realizing that I forgot to charge it last night. I've never forgotten before. Frustrated with myself, I pull the buds from my ears and stuff them in my pocket, lacing the fingers of both of my hands on top of my head and pacing along the waterfront.
“Are you okay?”
His voice is breathless, and I flinch at the sound of it. Everything, all of the shit I've been left alone with for nearly twenty four hours now, rushes to the surface. I stop with my back to him and drop my arms to my sides. Breathing heavily, I whirl around, locked and loaded and ready to make him bleed this way too. But there's a softness in his eyes that stops me from erupting. I've never seen it before, at least not directed toward me, anyway. Swift and unexpected, it punctures through the discord and I deflate. Running both of my hands through my hair, I close my eyes, turn away from him and drop down onto the bench. When he settles onto the other end of it, I give him an answer. It's pointless, though. His question might as well have been rhetorical. He already knows.
He keeps his eyes on the water. When I hear his voice again, it's calmer. Purposefully so.
“Just say it, Isabella. It doesn't make you weak.”
“What are you, a fucking shrink or something?
How can he know?
Quickly, I jerk my head to the right and away from him. The rush of satisfaction that lashing out brings me dissolves within seconds and I'm left feeling childish and immature. The pleasant truce of sorts that we had on Friday is lost to me right now. I have a sudden and irrational urge to pull my hair down from its ponytail. I want to be hidden. I feel unguarded and my skin prickles at the thought. Temptation roots itself and I fight for control. My mind races, torn between restraint and indulgence. Do I give in or do I batten down the hatches and ride this out?
My ire craves a fight, but my fear knows its place.
What if he's right? What if talking to him could relieve this?
What if it doesn't? Remember the last time you let yourself go with him...
This isn't the same. There's nothing for him to gain here.
Exactly. So why does he care? Letting him in will only arm him. He will burn you.
The voices rise in pitch, fighting to be heard, until I can't tell one from the other. My head throbs and I let out a harsh breath. Edward hasn't moved or made a sound, but I can feel his eyes on me. I can feel him there, waiting. I stare at the lake and consider his offer. I'm wound so tightly. What could it hurt?
“I... I can't.”
My voice is weak... barely more than a whisper, but he hears me. I can feel him looking at me, but I stare out at across the lake, seeing nothing. I can tell when he nods, but I still don't look.
Later, as I'm unlocking my front door, I turn in time to see him backing out of the driveway. And I can't deny that it isn't the welcome sight it used to be.
As I walk down the steps of my porch the next morning, yesterday's turbulence has calmed. I feel sluggish and bleary. The way Edward avoids looking me in the eye makes me cringe at how childish I'd been yesterday. I'd felt so agitated, my nerves twisted in knots and my patience razor thin, that I couldn't accommodate his presence. And if I was being honest with myself, I was unprepared for the relief I'd felt when I saw him waiting for me. He'd been gone for four days and it wasn't until he was at the end of my walkway that I realized something had been missing without him here. I'd become used to him being here. It was that wave of relief upon seeing him that sent me spiraling even further into my funk. Everything had amalgamated and pressed in on me until I lashed out.
And he was the one standing on the receiving end.
He doesn't speak during our run, but that's not unusual. By the time we're on opposite sides of the bench, I'm limp and useless. I close my eyes and long for a hot shower and cool sheets.
“How was your Thanksgiving?”
Quiet. Boring. The last word that comes to mind is one I'm reluctant to admit. Lonely.
“It was fine. Yours?”
My eyes fly to his, but he turns his head toward me slowly. The same with the stupid way his mouth curves up in a smile. Slow and lazy. When he shrugs at me unapologetically, I can't help but smile back at him. I feel a different kind of relief today, knowing that he isn't going to rake me over the coals about yesterday. I shake my head at him and look out over he lake, voicing something that just occurs to me. I'm reluctant, unsure about how he'll react, but I ask anyway.
“Did... did you get to see Josie?”
I'm confused by his answer. He scratches the back of his neck and tucks his hands into the front pocket of his jacket.
“I did go to see her, but not the way you probably think.”
He's talking in circles, nervous and reticent.
“She lives in Sacramento. With... with her biological father.”
Oh God. Edward...