And, as if everything I do is somehow hardwired to my memories of them – the raucous life next door, the giant, chaotic family I never had – I am hit with nostalgia, of the last non-work-related baby I spent any real time with. It’s a memory of me as a teenager, staring down at baby Alex as she slept in her bouncy chair.
My brain leapfrogs through a hundred images: Miss Dina cooking dinner with the swaddled bundle of Alex slung against her chest. Mr. Nick holding Alex in his beefy, hairy arms, staring down at her with the tenderness of an entire village. Sixteen-year-old George trying – and failing – to change a diaper without incident on the family couch. The protective lean of Nick Jr., George, and Andreas as they stared down at their new, most beloved sibling. And then, invariably, my mind shifts to Elliot just beyond or behind, waiting quietly for his older brothers to move on to their fighting or running or mess making, leaving him to pick up Alex, read to her, give her his undivided attention.
I ache, missing them all so much, but especially him.
“Mace,” Sabrina prompts.
I blink. “What?”
“Right.” My mood droops; the prospect of planning a wedding while juggling a hundred hours a week at the hospital never fails to exhaust me. “We haven’t moved on it yet. We still need to pick a date, a place, a… everything. Sean doesn’t care about the details, which, I guess, is good?”
“Of course,” she says with false brightness, shifting Viv to covertly nurse her at the table. “And besides, what’s the rush?”
In her question, the twin thought is very shallowly buried: I’m your best friend and I’ve only met the man twice, for fuck’s sake. What is the rush?
And she’s right. There is no rush. We’ve only been together for a few months. It’s just that Sean is the first man I’ve met in more than ten years who I can be with and not feel like I’m holding back somehow. He’s easy, and calm, and when his six-year-old daughter Phoebe asked when we were getting married, it seemed to switch something over in him, propelling him to ask me himself, later.
“I swear,” I tell her, “I have no interesting updates. Wait – no. I have a dentist appointment next week.” Sabrina laughs. “That’s what we’ve come to, that’s the only thing other than you that will break up the monotony for the foreseeable future. Work, sleep, repeat.”
Sabrina sees this as the invitation it is to talk freely about her new family of three, and she unrolls a list of accomplishments: the first smile, the first belly laugh, and just yesterday, a tiny fist shooting out with accuracy and firmly grabbing her mama’s finger.
I listen, loving each normal detail acknowledged for what it really is: a miracle. I wish I got to hear all of her “normal details” every day. I love what I do, but I miss just… talking.
I’m scheduled today for noon, and will probably be on the unit until the middle of the night. I’ll come home and sleep for a few hours, and do it all over again tomorrow. Even after coffee with Sabrina and Viv, the rest of this day will bleed into the next and – unless something truly awful happens on the unit – I won’t remember a single thing about it.
So as she talks, I try to absorb as much of this outside world as I can. I pull in the scent of coffee and toast, the sound of music rumbling beneath the bustle of the customers. When Sabrina bends down to pull a pacifier out of her diaper bag, I glance up to the counter, scanning the woman with the pink dreadlocks, the shorter man with a neck tattoo taking coffee orders, and, in front of them, the long masculine torso that slaps me into acute awareness.
His hair is nearly black. It’s thick and messy, falling over the tops of his ears. His collar is folded under on one side, his shirttails untucked from a pair of worn black jeans. His Vans are slip-on and faded old-school check print. A well-used messenger bag is slung across one shoulder and rests against the opposite hip.
With his back to me, he looks like a thousand other men in Berkeley, but I know exactly which man this is.
It’s the heavy, dog-eared book tucked under his arm that gives it away: there’s only one person I know who rereads Ivanhoe every October. Ritually, and with absolute adoration.
Unable to look away, I’m locked in anticipation of the moment he turns and I can see what nearly eleven years have done to him. I barely give thought to my own appearance: mint-green scrubs, practical sneakers, hair in a messy ponytail. Then again, it never occurred to either of us to consider our own faces or degree of put-togetherness before. We were always too busy memorizing each other.
Sabrina pulls my attention away while the ghost of my past is paying for his order.
I blink to her. “Sorry. I. Sorry. The… what?”
“I was just babbling about diaper rash. I’m more interested in what’s got you so…” She turns to follow where I’d been looking. “Oh.”
Her “oh” doesn’t contain understanding yet. Her “oh” is purely about how the man looks from behind. He’s tall – that happened suddenly, when he turned fifteen. And his shoulders are broad – that happened suddenly, too, but later. I remember noticing it the first time he hovered above me in the closet, his jeans at his knees, his broad form blocking out the weak overhead light. His hair is thick – but that’s always been true. His jeans rest low on his hips and his ass looks amazing. I… have no idea when that happened.
Basically, he looks exactly like the kind of guy we would ogle silently before turning to each other to share the wordless I know, right? face. It’s one of the most surreal realizations of my life: he’s grown into the kind of stranger I would dreamily admire.
It’s strange enough to see him from the back, and I’m watching him with such intensity that for a second, I convince myself that it’s not him after all.
Maybe it could be anyone – and after a decade apart, how well do I really know his body, anyway?
But then he turns, and I feel all the air get sucked out of the room. It’s if I’ve been punched in the solar plexus, my diaphragm momentarily paralyzed.
Sabrina hears the creaking, dusty sound coming from me and turns back around. I sense her starting to rise from her chair. “Mace?”
I pull in a breath, but it’s shallow and sour somehow, making my eyes burn.
His face is narrower, jaw sharper, morning stubble thicker. He’s still wearing the same style of thick-rimmed glasses, but they no longer dwarf his face. His bright hazel eyes are still magnified by the thick lenses. His nose is the same – but it’s no longer too big for his face. And his mouth is the same, too – straight, smooth, capable of the world’s most perfectly sardonic grin.
I can’t even imagine what expression he would make if he saw me here. It might be one I’ve never seen him make before.
“Mace?” Sabrina reaches with a free hand, grabbing my forearm. “Honey, you okay?”
I swallow, and close my eyes to break my own trance. “Yeah.”
She sounds unconvinced: “You sure?”
“I mean…” Swallowing again, I open my eyes and intend to look at her, but my gaze is drawn back over her shoulder again. “That guy over there… It’s Elliot.”
This time, her “Oh” is meaningful.
friday, august 9
fifteen years ago
I first saw Elliot at the open house.
The cabin was empty; unlike the meticulously staged real estate “products” in the Bay Area, this funky house for sale in Healdsburg was left completely unfurnished. Although as an adult I would learn to appreciate the potential in undecorated spaces, to my adolescent eyes, the emptiness felt cold and hollow. Our house in Berkeley was unselfconsciously cluttered. While she was alive, Mom’s sentimental tendencies overrode Dad’s Danish minimalism, and after she died he clearly couldn’t find it in himself to dial back the decor.
Here, the walls had darker patches where old paintings had hung for years. A path was worn into the carpet, revealing the preferred route of the previous inhabitants: from the front door to the kitchen. The upstairs was open to the entryway, the hallway looking over the first floor with only an old wooden railing at the edge. Upstairs, the doors to the rooms were all closed, giving the long hallway a mildly haunted feeling.