I gazed at her in the bed and let the contentment and the knowledge this memory brought to me in this moment wash over me with finality. I will hope for her, fight for her until there is nothing left in me, but part of me, the better part of me, the stronger part of me, realizes that if I should somehow manage to lose, I’ve already won.
The love I’ve shared with her over the course of the last two years is more than most people will know in a lifetime. If I never see that warmth in her eyes, or feel the touch of her hand in mine, or the tender way she brushes the haphazard curls from my brow again, I have lived, truly lived, and so has she. There is peace to be had even with a troubled heart just knowing that I have this small piece of comfort to give me the courage I will need to raise our daughter should she leave this world.
It’s time to let go of these insecurities. It’s time to grab ahold of life, whatever may come, and be who I truly am. I am forever hers and she is forever mine. The mistakes, the heartache, the pain…I refuse to live with it anymore. And if she can’t let it go, then she has no reason to come back to me. Maybe that’s why she’s so shut down. Maybe that’s part of the healing her body is undertaking. Maybe it is a spiritual war as much as a physical one; and I can do nothing but let her work this out on her own and wait with expectant, patient, and open arms. Either way, it’s entirely up to her to meet me half-way.
Thomas looks over at me and smiles curiously at the calm in the storm that must have noticeably washed over my countenance. I can feel my muscles relaxing and my soul righting itself. I smile at him and lean back in the chair as I eye him specutively.
He wasted so much of his life living in fear. My smile burns brighter. No, I won’t do that anymore. I fervently hope that she can meet me, but either way, hope springs eternal. This is Tina’s brother, and like she chose to honor and accept my own so freely, I can do no less with hers. ”Thomas…”
He smiles at me. ”Please call me Tom, Bette.”
I smile back. ”Tom…where do you plan to stay?”
He furrows his brows. ”I was in such a hurry to get here I hadn’t really given it much thought. I’ll find a room somewhere close-by.”
I shake my head. ”Nonsense. We have a fully stocked guest room. You’ll stay with me.”
His grin is disbelieving and warm. ”If it’s no trouble…I’d really like that.”
I stand and walk over to my purse, pulling out Tina’s keys and removing her house key from the ring. I turn back to him. ”Come with me. I have something to show you and then you can go get settled.”
He turns back to Tina and kisses the hand held in his own gently before releasing her with a sigh and standing to meet me at the door. We walk down the stark and sterile corridor together and step into the elevator, taking it to the sixth floor. I walk out and nod at the nurse at the desk as we pass and make our way to the clean room where my daughter rests and develops. Like everyone else, he can see just a little of her through the windows, but not enter.
I stop at the large window with rows of small plastic bins, and point to the one in the right corner of the room. ”There…” He peers through and gazes on her for only a moment before a delighted smile beams from his face. ”You can’t meet her yet, not even Tina has had the chance…” I sigh. Life is cruel in the extreme sometimes. I see his delighted face near the glass and chuckle. It’s almost pressed against the window like a child’s at Christmas on the sidewalk in front of F.A.O. Schwartz. She has so many people who love her to meet and she doesn’t even know it yet.
I turn to him and hand him Tina’s key. He accepts it hesitantly. ”You can stay with Tina if you like, but I need to visit with our daughter. I’ve haven’t been in to see her in more than twenty-four hours. This is the key to our home. I thought you might want to get settled and you can come back tomorrow. I’ll call my brother Malcolm, and he’ll meet you to help you. I’d take you myself, but…”
I gesture to the tiny, baby girl waiting for me and he smiles knowingly. ”No, stay. I have the address in my phone and a GPS. I’ll head over now. It’s been a crazy day and I’d like to get back here early.” He lowers his head a moment before he again meets my eyes. ”Is there anything I can do to help you Bette. I can’t imagine how difficult all of this must be right now.”
”No. I have everything I need.”
He nods and puts the key in his pocket. ”Then I’ll see you in the morning.”
I smile at him and he turns to leave. ”Oh, Tom. There is one thing…”
He turns and says, ”Name it.”
”Can you bring the mail with you tomorrow? I have a lot to go through already and don’t want to get behind again.”
He smiles charmingly. ”Mail. Got it. Anything else?”
”No, that’s all but it would be very helpful. Thank you.”
He grins again and turns to leave. I take a deep breath and quickly pull out my cell phone to text Malcolm. His agreeable response is immediate and I smile as I return to the nurse’s station. Tracy’s on duty tonight. The elderly woman with a kind face has been very sympathetic and helpful with visiting Angie. She looks up as I approach and says, ”Well, it’s about time you showed up.” She stands and I follow her into a room on the side of the preemie unit. I know this routine well enough by now. She opens one of the cabinets and pulls out a premade kit, handing it to me with a smile as she leaves me to my visit.
I walk to the sink and scrub my hands before opening the package and pulling out the plastic slip. I shake it out and pull it up over my arms, covering my front, and pull the drawstring closed together at the back. I put the small white padded cloth mask over my mouth and nose and tighten it behind my head. I pull out the cloth booties and take a seat in the corner as I snap the elastic over my shoes. All in all, I’m covered in so much plastic that I feel like a frumpy mannequin. I pull the hair tie from my pocket and pull my dark locks back into a low ponytail before again scrubbing my hands.
Angie is thirty-four weeks, but she didn’t get all the antibodies she needed from Tina to allow her to fight infection and her lungs are slightly underdeveloped. We were actually very lucky in this scenario. Some of the other children just beyond that door are struggling so hard that I’ve watched other mothers stand there and do nothing but cry. It’s heartbreaking. All of your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in this tiny person who is so helpless to allay your fears.
I step into the mostly quiet room, just the hums and beeps of technology sustained life and the occasional pad of soft footfalls against the linoleum and the rustle of plastic against fabric. I make my way over to my beautiful baby girl.
My smile is bright and watery as I gaze at her wonderful face. It’s fuller and rounder, her nose pointed just like mine. She has Tina’s full lips and a full head of black curls. She’s much heavier looking but still small and her skin looks thicker and less frail. Her bare chest with tiny sticky patches in strategic locations, rises and falls with quick and strong movements and they’ve moved her to an isolette that doesn’t require the gloved hands.
I reach in and carefully stroke her sweet eyebrow, feeling her soft skin for the first time. Her eyebrow lifts infinitesimally and my smile is radiant through my happy tears as I coo, ”Hi baby girl…” She stirs as she licks her lips and stuffs her fist in her mouth. ”…it’s mama B.” Her precious face that is showing signs of continued health with each passing day scrunches adorably. I chuckle at her intensely furrowed brows and wrinkled forehead, and I hold my breath as her eyelids flutter and slowly open, rolling around as they try to focus.
The air is stolen from my lungs. The dark and still murky depths are not just brown, there is the faintest hint of green, and I laugh with tears of joy at this miracle that we have brought into our lives. She is utterly beautiful, utterly amazing, and utterly scary all at once. I can almost feel my heart constrict with the fierce love, pride, and primal need to protect and preserve. My daughter, our daughter…terrifyingly and bewilderingly astonishing. Her eyes settle on me with wide eyed speculation as I gaze into the innocent soul thriving inside, and I’m already owned, thoroughly and irrevocably owned.
As if she can hear my thoughts she clumsily reaches up to the finger lovingly stroking her chest and grips it tightly. I laugh again through the watery haze and look down to the tiny but determined grip and her skin and mine could be almost identical. I had felt left out in the whole process of finding her donor until the day Tina and I made love to conceive. Her acknowledgement of me in that process helped to heal some of those wounds, but there were still some feelings of segregation leftover, but not now. She is as much mine as she is Tina’s. She looks like me because she is a part of me. She is truly a Porter and a Kennard, and she is a physically expressed depiction of the connection Tina and I share, our link in the physical world.
Her eyes start to glaze over as she starts to fall asleep again and I hasten to reassure her before she fades. ”Mama T is still asleep baby girl, but she’ll come see you soon. Have faith Angie…” Her long lashes rest on her cheeks and her breathing evens out, and I have only one more thing to say. ”I love you, baby girl…we both do…”
I lightly ruffle the wispy curls on her forehead once more before withdrawing my hand. ”She’s recovering well. She should be ready to go home in less than another week.” I turn to Ming, the young nurse gazing sweetly at Angie and smile. She grins back at me with a knowing expression as she reaches up and touches my shoulder, her gaze turning serious. ”My mother always told me, ’do not anxiously hope for that which has not come; do not vainly regret what has already passed.’” She looks back to Angie and smiles. ”I did not know what that truly meant until I worked with these little ones.” She meets my gaze. ”Your heart is gentler than people give you credit for, but it is your heart that will see you through this.” I furrow my brows incredulously at her and her smile turns mischievous as she turns and checks one of the more desperate cases in the room. I stare at her retreating back and a genuine smile lights my face as I leave the room, feeling hope shine brightly in my soul, banishing the dark that lies ahead.
I feel the weighted exhaustion of a week of sorrow settle on my shoulders as I make the short trek back to Tina’s room. Sleep is calling me, and I plan to get as comfortable as I can next to my wife and welcome its blissfully ignorant embrace. I step into the room and walk over to my chair, digging in the bag beneath for a sweater and slipping it over my head. I put the bag back in the floor under the chair look around for the pillow and the bear. I turn to Tina and see them resting at the foot of her bed right next to Shane. ”Shane…?”
She hasn’t come to visit and I didn’t expect her to after all that’s happened. She looks to me with her piercingly broken blue eyes, and an expression I’ve only ever seen twice. She sniffs and wipes at her nose before she looks back to Tina. ”I fucked up…” I furrow my brows and continue to gaze at her as she rocks back and forth a bit. She meets my gaze, sniffing and wiping at her nose again, only this time there are very visible tears dripping down her face. ”I’m sorry…I…I’m just…so sorry…”
My anger at her fades and I step up to her and touch her shoulder. ”It’s okay Shane…”
She snorts a short incredulous laugh and shakes her head in two sharp jerking motions before leaning forward, resting her head against my stomach, and crying in wracking sobs. I wrap my arms around her shoulders and she squeezes my waist so tightly that it’s almost painful. She cries for long moments and I can’t help but wonder what’s happening here. She finally starts to calm and I ask, ”Shane…what’s going on?”
She releases me and sits back, sniffing and wiping at her nose. ”I…um…I know you didn’t tell. It was Niki…” I close my eyes and sigh. ”…I’m sorry Bette. I just thought…well, it doesn’t matter what I thought…” She looks down at the floor.
”Shane what’s going on…what’s this about?”
She still doesn’t meet my eyes. ”Everyone wants something from me and…I don’t feel like I have anything left to give…”
I sit down on the edge of the bed next to her. I still don’t know where this is going. ”What have you been giving up until now?”
There’s a far-away expression on her face. ”Sex…that’s mainly what people want. Actually, I…I don’t even know at this point…I don’t, I don’t know…” She shrugs her shoulders dejectedly. ”I don’t know…”
She shakes her head as she curls further in on herself and I close my eyes. Is that really all she thinks she’s worth? ”Do you have to have sex with everyone who wants it?”
She sniffs again as the quiet tears continue to soak her face. ”In church, I didn’t.” She looks up to the ceiling. ”I used to uh, live in a church shelter, so…”
I reach to place my hand on her back but withdraw it. ”When was that?”
She looks again to the floor and her voice becomes detached. ”I guess I was ten…and I ran away from my foster family because…someone told me my real mom was back in Austin…” She takes a ragged breath. ”…and she used to go to that shelter when she was trying to get clean…”
I close my eyes and my heart hurts for Shane. I want so badly to reach out to her, to comfort her, but I don’t want to scare her away. ”Your mother was a drug addict?”
She nods her head and wipes at her nose. ”Yeah…”
She needs help, professional help to help her sort these feelings out. ”Have you considered joining a support group?”
She shakes her head quickly. ”No…no, no, no…I don’t like groups…” She takes a deep breath and meets my gaze. ”I used to go to confession. The thing I like about confession is…you don’t have to see the other person’s face…” Her chin trembles. ”…and you don’t have to see how…how hurt they are when they realize that…you can’t be that thing they want you to be.”
I take a chance and reach my hand out to set it on her back. She stiffens at the touch but doesn’t move. ”You might find there are people who don’t want anything from you…” She snorts out an incredulous laugh. ”…they just want to know you…”
She shakes her head and her voice is disbelieving. ”Yeah, I haven’t met anyone like that…” She stands up. ”Anyway, there’s…there’s nothing to know.”
She starts for the door and I stand. ”Shane, I don’t want anything from you…”
She stops but doesn’t turn to me, and I can hear another incredulous laugh as she says, ”Yeah, you do…”
I take a step forward. ”No, I…I may want some things for you…but I don’t want anything from you…”
She wipes at her face again as she seems to consider this. ”I, I don’t know how to have that Bette…I wish, I wish I did…”
”Shane, do you love Carmen?”
She scrubs her face and turns her piercing gaze on me. ”Yeah…” Her chin trembles again and her voice is rough with emotion. ”…yeah, I do…” She swallows it, emotions and all. ”…but just like everyone else, when she found out who I was, she left. And it’s…it’s better that way…for both of us…”
”Shane, that’s not true…”
”I’ll just hurt her, Bette… over, and over, and over again. She…she deserves better…”
”She loves you Shane.” The room grows eerily quiet, only the sound of Tina’s undulating heart beeping its reassuring but unsteady rhythm. ”She just wants to love you, but she doesn’t know how to reach you…”
”You can’t know that…not for sure.”
I take a step closer. ”Actually, I do know that.” She eyes me curiously and I tell more than I probably should…
Tina opened the door as I walked up behind her and we both stood there a little shocked. ”I’m sorry I didn’t call. I just…” Carmen lowered her eyes and scrubbed the back of her neck nervously. ”…I just needed someone who knows Shane…really knows her…” She looked me in the eyes. ”…to talk to…”
Tina and I finally broke out of our dumbfounded stupor to remember that while she hadn’t been around, she was still our friend. We both stepped aside and Tina stuttered, ”Of…of course. Come in.” Carmen smiled hesitantly as she stepped inside and Tina shut the door. She met my gaze and I could see the torrent of pain swirling in the dark depths of her eyes. This went on for a long moment before Tina excused herself. ”Why don’t I go make us some tea?”
Carmen smiled sadly but gratefully at Tina who took my hand in passing, holding on until the last minute. I smiled warmly at Carmen and jerked my head towards the sectional. Her expression was again grateful as she followed me over and took a seat on the other side of the corner.
I rested my hands on my knees and waited but she didn’t start, so I opened my mouth to prompt her only to have her interrupt me. She met my gaze head on and said, ”I love Shane, with all my heart. And I thought…I thought that she loved me too. But then she…she fucked Niki Stevens…in our house…with me in the next room no less…” Her voice was incredulous and exasperated as she threw her hands in the air with frustration and her eyes glassed over with a shiny sheen. ”How could she do that?!” She let them fall with a harsh slap to her thighs. ”How could she love me and do that, Bette?! How?!”
Ah, I saw it. She didn’t come to me simply because I knew Shane the best, she came to me because I knew how to be a betrayer; I knew how to love someone and breach that trust. I closed my eyes. How indeed? I didn’t know how when I did it, and I still didn’t know how after the fact. I wasn’t even sure why. I only knew I was spinning out of control, but mine and Shane’s circumstances were entirely different, though our fundamental goal the same. Hers was a protection mechanism seeking to destroy and mine was a desperate attempt to fill an emotional void that also sought to destroy. Either way, I could only speak for myself here.
”Carmen I…I can only speak for myself. It is possible to love someone and still hurt them, betray them, even do unspeakable things to them. Even when you love someone, not everything you do is out of love and sometimes when you love someone, you can hurt them trying to protect them.”
Her incredulous laugh was short and sharp. ”I don’t understand what any of that even means…”
I sighed. ”Okay…loving someone doesn’t make you perfect. Not every choice will be the right one. It’s easy to get wrapped up in yourself and lose sight of that love. And when that happens, for even an instant, you can destroy everything that means anything; but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them, it just means that in a moment of weakness or confusion, you fucked up.”
She furrowed her brows but nodded her head. ”Okay…you think Shane was just weak or confused…?”
I sighed and shook my head. ”No. Like I said, I can only speak for myself.”
”Can you at least just guess? At this point, I’ll take anything I can get…”
I rested my elbows on my knees and folded my hands, resting my chin on them and eyed her specutively. ”If I had to guess, I’d say that some people cut others loose in such a way that it’s irreversible because they think they’re doing the person they love a favor.” Her eyes widened disbelievingly. ”Really though, I think it’s to protect themselves just as much as the person they’re cutting free…”
She stared at me for a long moment, trying to absorb what I was saying as Tina came in with a tray of fresh tea. She smiled sweetly at me and I returned it as she set the tray on the coffee table and took a seat next to me. Carmen watched this entire exchange and my words started to sink in as another thought occurred to her. She looked to Tina. ”How…how do you forgive…that…” She gestured in a general manner. ”How do you trust again?”
Tina looked to me and I could tell she was feeling put on the spot. She finally collected her thoughts and said, ”It takes a lot of time and effort, and most importantly, a patient partner willing to work with you to prove that they wouldn’t ever do that again.” She smiled adoringly at me and my heart soared. ”Honestly, I still struggle with it sometimes. I think the hardest part is just realizing it…not just knowing it.”
Tears gathered in Carmen’s eyes as she said, ”Do you think Shane…” She lowered her head and fidgeted with her fingers. ”…that she’d try…that she loves me enough…?”
Fuck. That wasn’t something I was prepared to answer. ”Carmen, I’m sorry, but I don’t know that. Have you spoken with her?”
She shook her head and turned to face away from us. ”Not since I found out what aunt Begonia was doing. When I saw her she seemed so…distant. And I…I’ve heard things…”
Tina leaned forward and picked up our teas, handing me a cup and I smiled gratefully at her. She took a sip and looked back to Carmen. ”Carmen, loving someone is always going to involve risk, even if you could find a perfect person. At the end of the day, it’s either worth it to put your neck out there with the possibility of losing your head, or it’s not. But only you can decide that for yourself…and the same goes for Shane. Neither choice will be easy…at least not if you already care?
She sighed and picked up her tea taking a sip and swallowing harshly. She looked to Tina and grinned. Tina hid her smile behind her own mug. ”I thought you could use a little kick.” I looked down at Tina smiling incredulously but she ignored me as she took a sip of her own tea. I eyed the tea in my hands and sipped carefully. She watched me with a chuckle. ”The only kick you’re going to get is a swift one to the seat of your pants.”
I glared at her smugly and took another sip. ”Don’t start a war you can’t finish.”
She laughed at me with a raised eyebrow. ”You don’t scare me, Porter…”
We squinted our eyes at each other and I brought out my most feral smile. ”Famous last words, Kennard”
She casually took another sip of her tea. ”Oh, it’s on…”
I pitched my voice up about two octaves and in a quiet, sing-song voice said, ”Like Donkey Kong…”
Shane’s eyes are round and dejectedly sad as she absorbs this information. Long moments of heavy silence pass before she queries, ”Is it worth it…letting someone in?”
I smile confidently at her and recall one of daddy’s favorite books. ”This may sound cliché, but it’s something daddy used to quote to me, and it struck a chord in me. ’Life is a storm, my young friend. You’ll bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man,’ or in this case a woman…” I smile brightly at her and she returns a sad one of her own. ”…a wonderfully warm, loyal, and trustworthy woman that deserves to know unconditional love…” The tears fall from her eyes again and her face is so disbelievingly astonished, you’d think no one had ever pointed out the qualities that make her one of the best friends I’ll ever know. It’s heartbreaking. ”…’is what you do when that storm comes.’ Is it worth it?” I look to Tina for a moment and my own smile turns sad before I gaze back at her seriously. ”Without a doubt.”
She swallows her emotions and nods her head once, and there’s a long moment of silence as she pulls herself together enough to choke out the words. ”Bette…I’m sorry for…hitting you…and for not being here…” She looks back to the sleeping beauty in the bed and I gaze at my wife as well. ”…if it’s any consolation, staying away was eating me alive.”
I smile sadly at her. ”You’re here now; that’s all that matters.”
She clears her throat. ”I should go…”
She turns to leave and I say one last thing. ”Shane?” She stops and turns her head over her shoulder. ”Even if you have to face something like this, it’s still worth it. Just…think about it.” I can see the smirk on her face as she starts to walk away and I look to my wife, focusing all my love and energy on her as I take my pillow and the bear, and collapse in the torture device that is my temporary bed, falling into an exhausted sleep.