Arms That Hold Me

it  looks like this, arms that hold me, elaina avalos, elaina m avalos, katie owens, one more cup of coffee
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A short story

Home isn’t always a place – sometimes it’s a person. I could live in hut, in the middle of Africa, or a shelter built of whatever we could find, in the poorest village in Baja – or in a leaky old farm house in Burgundy and I’d still be home. He is my home and always will be. Turning into our driveway, after a long week away, has become this perfect joy – the kind of joy that I didn’t know could be possible. I mean, I wanted it to be possible – I just didn’t experience it for most of my life. I travel for work – more often than I’d prefer. But it pays my half of the bills. During the weeks away, in spite of how busy my days keep me, I count down the moments until I return to this quiet haven we have created.

The day I met my husband was a horrible day. The worst – the kind of day that makes you want to crawl into bed and drink yourself into a stupor. At the end of the worst day, I’d had in years and years, I stepped off the escalator at my Metro stop and the sky unleashed with a holy furor – the likes I hadn’t seen in ages. There’d been no rain in the forecast, because of course not. Somehow, the worst summer thunderstorm I’d seen in ages, just happened to hit the moment I stepped onto the street. It soaked me to the bone. When I walked into the corner grocery store I shopped at every evening for my dinner, I am 1000% certain I looked like a drowned rat. But I shopped here every evening before walking to my Brownstone – and a little sloshing about, wasn’t about to stop me.

When my, now husband, reached down to help me up from the floor of that corner grocery store – now covered in pinot noir and soaking wet from the storm, I swatted his hand away. Eleven years later, I still haven’t lived that down. In what I now know is his endless patience and persistence, he put his hand out again. The second time I took it. My husband is a beast of a man. He is big and broad to my tiny frame. His hands practically swallowed mine. When I stood, the room spun around me a bit. I thought I might faint. “Hang in there with me, Miss,” he said, steadying me. “You’ve hit your head pretty hard. Let me call for an ambulance. That kid knocked you over pretty good.”

                “What happened?” I asked, the room still spinning.

                “Some jackwagon stole a bunch of beer and I guess the owner must’ve seen him on camera. He started hollering as I walked in and the kid ran through the store, and took you down as he went. I couldn’t get to you before you fell back. One of those,” he said, pointing to the wine on display at the end of the aisle, “hit you as you fell back. It was a double whammy – the floor and the wine, both conked you on the head.”

By the way, the wine is a display I personally installed a week ago. I’m a wine rep and sommelier. And after three years, I’d finally convinced Mr. Green to let me sell my wares here. “Ah. Of course,” I said. “Naturally it’s the pinot noir.”

                “What’s that?” he asked.

                “Never mind. And no – no ambulance. I’ll walk to the hospital. Or take the metro.”

                “Oh no you will not,” he said. And just like that, the burly stranger I met in a southeast D.C. grocery store, was taking me to the hospital – as if I’d known him my whole life.

                That was 11 years ago. We married a year later. We’ve been inseparable ever since. He is the best thing that has ever happened to me. He is nothing I ever imagined when I dreamed about the man I’d spend my life with. The thing is, once he won my heart, I couldn’t imagine another existence – as if we were formed from the beginning, for each other. He’s everything I’ve ever needed and nothing I knew I wanted. We are opposites in many ways. But in every way that matters, he is my best friend – my true companion.

We built this house, into the mountain, a few years ago, after we’d wandered and dreamed about where we would settle. It’s weird like us – mid-century modern angles, expansive windows, and high ceilings – and the sweetest stone fireplace you ever did see. I long for home when I’m away, coming home to this man and our refuge is the best sort of gift. When it’s cold, he lights the fire before I get home. But even without it, he’s like that fire, keeping me warm from the inside out. I long for him even still, after all this time, as if it was the first time. His physical strength and single-minded pursuit of me has been steadying me for 11 years. I’ll never get over his love for me. And I will never love another human more than him.

Without considering for a second the need to grab my luggage or even my purse, the second I turn off the car in the garage, I head into the house – needing the arms that hold me . When I left California earlier today, the blazing hot sun and Santa Ana winds blew through the Temecula valley wine country. But here, so far from that dusty place, it’s cold now – the weather has turned. It’s autumn now. The warmth of the fire warms me instantly when I open the door – as does the mischievous smile that’s made me rather lusty – for so long now. My husband is hot. A smile bursts out. I cannot contain myself. Long before I reach him, the gratitude of all these years, overwhelms me. “I thought you’d never get here,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to get home for days,” I say. “It’s all I could think about. I missed you.” His arms pull me close.

“Good thing I don’t have to share you for a while. A week is too long. Can we just agree on this now? There has to be a better way,” he says.

“A week is too long. We’ll figure something out,” I say,” melting into him and his kiss. As the sun sets in the kitchen window behind us, his arms around me – he fills me in on the week I’ve missed. He holds me close – as if I’m going somewhere. The man is stuck with me. Come hell or highwater, I’m not going anywhere.

What a Family Looks Like

Elaina Avalos, Lacey Mays

I was born an entertainer. Not like a singing and dancing entertainer (the whole world thanks God for this little bit of grace), but an entertainer just the same. There’s no one that can throw a party like me. I’m one hell of a cook. I pair wine like it’s my job. I set a table that’s Instagram worthy. Someone should pay me to do it. Tonight will be beautiful. But it won’t just look beautiful. I live for the joy that comes from knowing how at home my friends and their kids feel in our home. We do this once a month and have for years on end. They all met in college or at least during those years. I came along a little later. We’ve gone through our hard days and years, but we’ve stayed together. We’re thick as thieves. While it’s not unusual for us to break bread, there is something special about tonight. It’s in the air – buzzing and lighting up the place – like fireflies in the night sky. We alternate and have dinner at other friend’s homes, but we tend to gravitate here more often than not. Our home is nestled into the sweetest valley you ever did see, just outside the city limits of our mountain town. The day we found this place, I knew it was ours. I knew it wasn’t just any old house. We’ve collected people – mostly kids over the years. They come and go. I lost count of the number of Andrew’s players that have lived here for a couple of weeks, six months, or a year. He doesn’t even ask me anymore because he knows I’ll say yes. I usually get a text – something along the lines of Add feeding another large human to the grocery list. And then . . . it’s so. They walk in with their duffel bag or a backpack and a “thank you, Mrs. J.” When the situation at home simmers down or their extended family opens the door, they go on their way. When we bought this house, my husband thought I was crazy. It’s a lot of house and land. But he gets it now. You’d have to pry this house from our cold, dead hands now. We adore opening our home like this, in spite of the chaos.

But back to tonight. It’s not unusual on one hand. On the other, last week our world was rocked when the eldest child of our five families suddenly returned home after a handful of years of wandering and drugs, and gosh, we don’t even know the whole story yet. We wondered if we’d lost her forever. We lost complete track of her two years ago. She didn’t show up at her parent’s house last week. She came here. She came here because she knew we’d open the door without questions. And she needed to calm her anxiety before she saw her mama and daddy. So tonight, we celebrate Sadie coming home. She’s 19 now, clean for nine months, and ready-to-pop pregnant, with the first grandchild to grace this crew. My heart is filled with the best kind of joy. It’s the joy that comes when your friends are gloriously grateful and happy. But that’s not all that’s happened to our weird clan, since we last gathered here. My husband and I have some news to share – news we’ve kept quiet for longer than I’d planned. I can’t wait for them to get here.

A few minutes before everyone arrives, I step out onto the back deck to make sure everything is just like I wanted it. Our table – two together – to make room for all of us and our wild children, sits in my favorite spot under the Oak trees. Andrew – who is a saint, by the way – hung lights and lanterns all over the yard last week. We bring them in during the winter. Now that the weather has finally turned, he did his yearly duty. Which is to say, that he put up with me saying, “Wait, can you move that one a little further to the right? It doesn’t look good there.” This goes on for hours until everything is just right.

He is the best man I’ve ever known. And not just because he can patiently handle me, my lights, and all my crazy things. The thing is, he does it as if it’s no load to carry at all – which makes me love him all the more. He is the best thing to ever happen to me. As I survey the yard and our handiwork, the backdoor shuts. I’m sure he’s come to check on me. This yard is like one I dreamed of when I was a tiny girl, living on the distant hopes of what might someday be – as I beat back the reality of the life I was born into. “Hey,” he says, slipping his arm around my waist. He kisses me on the cheek.

“Hey back,” I say. “How was practice?”

“Eh. Could’ve been better. But it’s early. It’s always this point in the spring when I question why I’m still coaching.”

“You’re still coaching because you cannot help yourself.”

“True. Everything looks perfect as usual. You’re the Queen. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready. And thank you. It is lovely out here, thanks to you. It’s the lights. You smell good, by the way. You trying to seduce me?”

“Perhaps. This is your favorite, no?”

“I mean, if you want to be technical about it, yes. You should know by now it doesn’t take cologne to seduce me. But okay.”

Andrew laughs at me and pulls me a little closer. For thirteen years of my life, I have loved this man in our darkest and best days. For all the years before that, that I could dream and wish and pray about what my life would look like someday – I wished for him. He whispers in my ear, “I love you, Sweetness.”

“I love you, too.”

Before I can say anything else, Carter yells out from the kitchen, “They’re here!” Our other three banshees join in the chorus – as if they haven’t all seen each other at school or soccer practice, or the last sleepover. I let the kids take over because there’s no point at trying to beat them to the door.

“Shall we?” Andrew asks. He knows me well. I’m ready to pour drinks and get the party started. He takes my hand, which is still the sweetest thing to me. Together for thirteen – married for ten and it seems like we just met sometimes. We’re just walking inside our own house, but he’s always near – when he can be anyway. He knows how much it means to me. People often comment on this. You two are so cute, they say. You still act like newlyweds, is another one. Perhaps. But they don’t know the battles and wars we’ve raged to get here. You won’t find either one of us taking the other for granted not after the work it has taken to get here. So, when we’re standing in a room full of people, we’ll be together as much as we can – usually with his hand on the small of my back. That’s my absolute favorite. Or when his perfect hands reach for me. When he’s across the room talking with friends or we’re at one of his player’s parent’s homes and I look up and catch his eyes on me, it’s not lost on this old girl, what a gift he is. He holds the door for me as four of our five best friends in the world walk into the kitchen. Carter and Brad are already running off toward the yard.

“Stop running!” Three of us say in unison. Katie shakes her head and then reaches for me, hugging me tighter and longer than she has in ages. It’s the relief. I know it. When we pull away, I hug Sadie. Her pregnant belly is in the way – but I hold onto her just the same. This beautiful girl disappeared on a frigid November night, after the football championship game. She has been forever and constantly in our prayers and close to our conversations. Unlike some who might not want to talk about our worst fears for a missing teen, we let it all hang out. Whether it was stories of her fierceness as a toddler or someone quietly saying, just above the noise of our conversations, “Sadie would love this,” she was always close to us. We breathed prayers for her when we lost the ability to speak the words.

“You are beautiful my girl,” I say to her.

“Thanks Aunt Lacey. I feel like a cow.”

“Well, you’re a beautiful cow,” I say. She laughs at me and we all smile in unison, as if on cue. Her laugh is big and gravely – which has never fit with the tiny fairy girl she’s always been. Her laugh and voice have always sounded like she should’ve been a chain-smoking waitress at the Waffle House and not the tiny human that carries that big laugh. It was my favorite thing about her when I met her the first time, when she was just six years old. I love her so. “What can I get you to drink? Lemonade? Tea?”

“I’ll just have some water for now, thanks.” And then I take everyone else’s orders. Katie steps in and helps me pour drinks. Our fifth couple – always late to every party – finally joins us. We don’t even bother teasing them about being late anymore. They can’t help it. They’ve tried. It’s just not in the cards for them. Bo – Katie’s husband, was a Marine. He used to tell them to be everywhere a half-hour ahead of time. But that eventually stopped working, too. We love them anyway, even if we are perpetually behind schedule because of them.

I can’t hear myself think. Between the kids and our best friends catching up or talking about their day, it’s just a mess in here already. I love it with all of my heart. I lean up against the counter and close my eyes a second. When I was a kid, I grew up in the worst way imaginable. My parents were drug addicts and terribly abusive to each other. We lived in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. The only reason we even had a house was because it belonged to my grandparents. When they were at their worst, I’d hide in my closet and dream about my someday life. My daddy – Bobby Mays – never had a chance. He’d grown up worse than I did. My mom – Donna – was the exact opposite, however. She entered this world with a silver spoon in her mouth. It wasn’t enough to keep her away from the drugs that ravaged our county and countless families all around us. When they were getting high or hitting each other or they’d have their gross friends in our home, I’d hide for hours on end, with my flashlight, and pour over my books. My favorite was a picture book of prayers for kids. I memorized those prayers and the beautiful art on the pages. One of the prayers took up two pages. It had a gorgeous drawing of a home and yard covering both pages There was lush green grass, beautiful trees, and a picture-perfect house. A little girl, barefoot, wearing a sundress and carefree, was running in the yard. Though I couldn’t speak these dreams to my parents, I whispered them to a God that I kept hoping would hear me. It was in that closet, deep into Pamlico County, North Carolina that this vision in front of me, took shape. I mean, not these exact weirdos. But something like it. Our kids, our lives – this sharing of life – I’d prayed for it and hoped for it for as long as I knew how. And this house, it’s just a larger version of that artwork in my children’s book of prayers.

“Shall we head outside?” Andrew says. I open my eyes and look up at him. Of course he’s here next to me. He picks up his beer from the counter and with his other hand, takes mine. We head outside. The clan follows us. Until the food is ready, everyone is seated around the deck, talking, laughing, and enjoying the adult beverages and warm weather. When the oven timer goes off, we gather up the food and head out to the table. Everyone gets situated – after negotiating with arguing children about where everyone will sit. We have sixteen kids total, between us. That’s right. Sixteen. They’re not all here each time. The older we get, the older they get. Our older kids are often busy with work, sports, cheer, or dance. But all of the littles are here – which is still quite a lot of crazy.

The laughter and conversation as we eat and drink, is home to me. We don’t do a ton of toasting around here, but I think everyone knows tonight is different. When it seems like most everyone is done eating and the kids are scattered and playing in the house or in the backyard, Andrew clinks his glass – as if we’re at a wedding. He stands up, “We all know tonight is special. We’re celebrating Sadie and the bambino of course. There’s no other way we’d want to head into our weekend than to be here with you all. Especially because we,” he says pointing back and forth between the two of us, “-we have some exciting news to share, too. We are grateful for each of you and all of the support you’ve given us over the years. It wasn’t easy – some of you were around when it was just me and the boys and we -”

“Spit it out, Drew,” Bo says.

“Yeah, man. Get on with it,” Hayden says. I know they are not expecting what we are about to say, so I stand up and stand next to Andrew, taking his hand.

“Wait. This is really big, isn’t it?” Katie asks. “What’s going on guys?”

“When Lace and I met, she took on a lot. She worked her ass off at work, she raised my boys, and she sacrificed months and months of the year as a family. I was never here. I’m never here – between practice, watching film, and the season. She’s done it all.” I smile at him. He’s the sweetest man I know. “She gave up a lot of herself, you know?” He’s getting emotional. His voice cracks a little as tears rise in his eyes. I’ve never seen him quite like this, except on our wedding day. I look up at our friends and there’s a mix of emotions etched on their faces. I smile and squeeze his hand. “So anyway, she’s given up a lot. And I kept asking more of her. I fill up the house with these huge kids that smell and eat all of our food. She gets up the next day and is like – what’s next? But there’s been one thing that has escaped us. I blame myself and all of the effort she’s put into everyone else’s lives and dreams, mine included.”

“Oh my god,” Ali says. “I have chills. Come on, bro. Tell us. Is this what I think it is?”

I shake my head yes. “What? No way!” Katie says, pushing back her chair and hugging us both. We’re all crying now – before the words have even escaped our lips.

When we pull away, I know everyone has already figured it out. I take over for my husband. “I’m pregnant! We passed up the first trimester about a week ago. It’s a girl. We’re having a baby girl!” Everyone is up and out of their chairs congratulating us. I’m crying. Andrew is crying. I’m so grateful they’re so happy for us. “We didn’t mean to steal your thunder, Kate. We were going to tell you all last weekend but better things happened last weekend than our news,” I say to Katie. I’ve not wanted to take away from the absolute joy we all still feel that Sadie is home. But I wanted desperately to tell them.

“Are you kidding me, you lunatic? There’s no stealing thunder here. This is incredible,” she says. The conversation continues – once everyone has shaken hands or hugged – as we settle back into our chairs.

Under the table, Andrew takes my hand, as Katie and I talk about all things baby. We tried for a few years when we first got married. And in those few years, I had six miscarriages. I gave up then. I threw myself into work, our boys, and Andrew’s students and players. There are football coaches. And then there are football coaches. My husband is the latter. Our lives are consumed by the school and frankly, the town who thinks we’re public property. That’s the life of a coach in a small town that lives for the Friday night lights. Our lives revolve completely around these young men he parents and coaches. I am there for practices with the other wives. We cook for the boys on the weekends. We take food to Drew when he’s sitting in his office for hours on end. Somewhere in there I just stopped hoping. I met Drew when the boys were deep in grief over losing their mom. They clung to me in a way I didn’t expect. I figured when we started dating that they’d maybe struggle to accept me. They didn’t. I was consumed by raising them. I love them as if they are mine. I’m not a stepmom and haven’t been since nearly the beginning. They’re our boys. But always, always – hidden underneath our busy lives and this dream that I wouldn’t trade for anything – is this longing that stayed just out of my reach. A few weeks after I turned 42, long after I’d given up all hope, my doctor came into the exam room with a huge smile on her face. I thought I was starting menopause. Or maybe I was sick. I’d been run down – feeling awful for weeks and weeks. I was losing weight and couldn’t stay awake half the time.

“What’s up the with smile?” I asked her.

“Well . . . you’re pregnant, Lacey.” And then I didn’t hear her for a full minute or so. I still have no idea what she said. I didn’t realize she was talking until she started laughing at me.

After ten years of infertility, losing six babies, and burying this dream, I’m having a baby with the man who made me a mom to his wild brood of boys. When I dreamed about days like this, in that closet in my parent’s old clapboard house in Pamlico County, it didn’t look quite like this. But I didn’t know it would feel this good, either.

Fiction Friday: One Way or Another

Here’s another excerpt from my novel, A Thousand Years.

On Friday evening, after we’d stuffed ourselves with pizza and we’re comfy in our favorite spots in the family room, watching a movie, Gray came through the front door. Total chaos ensued, as he was a whole week early. I always love seeing him like this – such a contradiction. He is dirty and smells. He’s mostly cleaned up before his drive home, but even still he’s looking and smelling rough. It’s a total contradiction from this quiet, studious man I’ve known most of my adult life. Amelia is in his arms in an instant and Jake is talking a mile a minute. We’ve paused the movie for the mini-reunion. When they finally relax a little, Gray lifts up a backpack. “Can I shower and change?” he asks.
“Of course. I set out some fresh towels. They’re on the counter in the upstairs bathroom. There’s pizza when you’re finished.”
“You are literally the best. The best everything.”
“True. I am. Now go shower – you stink.”
“True story,” he says.
A few minutes later, when I hear the water turn off, I walk into the kitchen to heat him a plate of pizza. I choose his favorites from what’s left of our four different types and put them in the microwave. As the microwave finishes, he walks into the kitchen. He didn’t shave – which I love. And he smells amazing as always. “You are a saint. Thank you for being there for us – as always,” he says, hugging me.
“You’re welcome. I’d do anything for you and the kids,” I say. He’s not letting go. I don’t want him to. And I want him to at the same time. Isn’t that just like us? I pull away from him. “Eat,” I say pointing at his plate. He pulls out a bar stool at my kitchen island and sits down.
“Listen, I hate to bring this up now but, you need to talk to Jake. He’s having a hard time with the stuff Adria is doing and he’s frustrated that you don’t just cut her off. He asked if he could move in with me.”
Gray put the piece of pizza in his hand, back on his plate. “Yeah? What did you say?” He doesn’t look mad. But I can tell that he’s not thrilled with me.
“I told him that wasn’t possible, but that I would always be there for him. For all of you. I told him that he needed to talk to you about how he’s feeling and to ask you the questions he asked me.”
“Oh,” he says flatly. “What kinds of questions did he ask?”
“Rather than specific questions I would just sum it up by saying that he’s tired of Adria’s behavior and doesn’t understand why she never has to deal with consequences for her bad choices. He said that when he does bad things, you hold him accountable.”
“Ah. These are big thoughts for a little boy. I can’t blame him,” he says, the defeat of recent years etched in the new lines in his forehead. He runs his hands through his hair. He needs a haircut. I don’t know how it’s possible, but the older he gets, the more handsome he gets. “I don’t know why I let her stay in our lives, Bird. Why do I allow this?”
“I don’t know, Love. I ask myself this all of the time.”
“Thank you for being there when he had these big worries and questions. You’re a good mom to Jacky. And you’re a good mom to my kids, Bird. You love us well. And you deserve -” His statement trails off. I already know where he’s going with this.
“I deserve to be with the love of my life,” I say, as I put the pizza boxes back in the refrigerator and walk back out to the family room. I sit back down on the couch and Amelia crawls into my lap.
“Will you braid my hair now, Aunt Birdie?”
“Yep. Run to the bathroom and grab the comb and some hair bands, okay?”
“K,” she says, running down the hall to the downstairs bathroom. As a boy mom, Amelia is my only chance to enjoy girl stuff, so I keep a basket for her here with makeup and hair barrettes, and nail polish. She races around the corner with her basket and climbs back into my lap. “Got ‘em!” she says.
She leans back as I start brushing her hair. Like every other time, since I’ve moved back to Newton, we’ve done this very thing, I’m overwhelmed – with love, hope, fear, and a dread that surrounds every moment with Gray and his children – worrying its end could come any moment. I make myself a promise, as I braid Amelia’s hair – Gray will not ever devastate me again. So this foggy haze that hangs between us, is gonna clear, one way or another.

Novel Progress

Recent weeks have been challenging on the writing front. But the novel inspiration has kicked back into high gear again, so I’m looking forward to spending time this weekend on getting through a huge portion of my remaining edits (for the second draft). I thought I’d share a notes on my novel progress.

1. I am continuing to post little vignettes and poems here on the blog that may (we’ll see) appear in the novel. I’m adding another page to my Fiction menu where they will all be located. Also, the photography I’m using can all be found on Pexels or Unsplash. This weekend, I’ll be tagging each photo with the photographer’s name and will add a category to catalog the photos. These are all royalty free and don’t require link backs. However, I feel like it’s necessary. I just wasn’t sure the best way to do it. My most recent was Your Eyes. The very first was Wild Things.

2. I have a Pinterest board that’s slowly taking shape, where I pin images that stir up inspiration. You can find it here. As a visual person, sometimes I just need a little more than what I conjure up in my head. I’ll be adding more to that soon, too! As a side note, I unexpectedly changed my protagonist’s ex-husband out for a new ex-husband (haha). And now I want to write a book about him (new ex-husband). “He” (or at least a little inspiration for his character) can be found in the first few photos of the board I just shared. He’s a chef. With a beard. And tattoos. He’s totally made up, but I wouldn’t hate meeting one of them. Haha.

3. I’ve previously shared the Spotify playlist for the novel. But I’ve been bouncing around a lot lately. If you’re on Spotify, I’d love to connect with you there. You can find my profile, here.

Random photo of a hot & bearded Dierks Bentley for no reason except I love dudes with beards (see below).

I just wanted to share a few quick notes. If you’re on Pinterest or Spotify, I’d love to connect with you.

Fiction Friday – Fix This

Here’s a quick excerpt for my work in progress, A Thousand Years.

My son cooked for me on the open fire – just like Michael had taught him from the time he was toddling around, following my ex-husband around everywhere. It was a perfect night, with a bit of a chill in the air – the fire kept us cozy. It was magic, like every other time we’d done this very thing. The Redwoods surrounding us and the distant sound of the ocean remind me of my good fortune. But just like the day that Gray came back into my life, I knew the magic of our lives in Big Sur would be over soon. I’d built up this safe little world for us here. We had our friends and our family and the constancy of the Pacific beating against the shore below our home. But it was only part of Jackson’s story. It was only part of mine. He had a whole other life out there. Along with a dad, half-siblings, and a longing to know his biological father. The longing was more intense than I ever truly realized until last week.

Michael had come to see us before leaving the country for some solo adventure – probably risking his life climbing some mountain somewhere. Our divorce, final for over two years now, had shocked everyone around us. We were quite the team. The chef husband and the vineyard owning wife – a duo that had taken the hospitality world by storm – beyond this wind beaten shore. It truly did shock everyone around us. Michael is a beautiful man. I mean, he’s beautiful to look at. But he’s also good and patient. And terribly kind. He’s one of the best men God’s ever made. He had his flaws. Don’t we all. He’d done the best he could for us though. It was never good enough for me. My friends thought I was insane when I asked him to move out. In only the way Michael can, he got it. I mean, he didn’t want to leave. He didn’t give up on us easily. But he’d settled into reality long before he actually moved out – maybe a year? In that year, we became roommates and best friends. Friends that shared a home, business and, raised a child. But friends just the same.

When he came over, before flying off to parts unknown, I knew Michael and Jackson would find some adventure to get into. After a hug and dropping off some food from the restaurant, he wandered out back with Jackson. They got in Michael’s Jeep and headed out. I knew they’d show up before dusk with fish or wild stories of finding some new waterfall or swimming in the freezing water of Castro Creek. And as expected, they did. They came home with fish and manly stories, smelling of the woods. Jackson hugged me when he came home and then wandered upstairs to watch TV. I stood with Michael while he cleaned the fish in our backyard, at the sink he’d installed when Jackson was a toddler. “Did you have fun?”

“Of course. We always do,” my ex-husband said, sounding more restrained than normal. My sense was, there was more.

“Is everything okay?” I ask.

“No,” he says, getting straight to the point, like he always does.

“Well don’t make me guess. What’s up?”

“Jackson figured out who is father is. I mean, he isn’t certain – but not five minutes into fishing he started talking. And the more he talked, the more he’d figured out.”

“He knows Gray is his father?”

“Yep. And the only thing saving you from your kid not hating you right now is that you’ve talked about his bio-dad his whole life. He knows how much you respect him and cared for him. But he’s angry, Birdie.”

“Why? What? How did -”

“Yeah, that. I mean, the two of them are spitting images. He knew that day Gray showed up here. He told me he didn’t know for sure until he heard you arguing with him on the porch. He said he listened at the door and couldn’t make out everything – but heard enough to think that there was a good chance.”

“And then Gray left.”

“And then Gray left. So as you can imagine, that sweet kid of yours is feeling a little lost and hurt. And rather than hurt you, he waited until he could talk to me about it.”

“Michael. My god. I’m sorry that you’ve been cleaning up after our mess for so long. Thank you for always being there for our boy.”

“You know I love him like he’s mine. I never, not for one second, want to know a life without that kid in it – some way, somehow. But he’s hurting now because Gray walked out and here we are three weeks later and you haven’t talked to him about it. As far as he knows, Gray’s gone forever.”

“I’m a horrible person,” I say.

“Not horrible. Just blind, sometimes,” he says. “I love you, Birdie. I always will. But you need to fix this before you lose that sweet kid. Promise me,” he says, turning off the water and turning to face me.

“I promise. I don’t deserve you. I’m so grateful you’re still here, in spite of what a shitty partner I was.”

“You weren’t a shitty partner. Don’t be dramatic. You just didn’t love me, like I loved you.”

“Oh yeah. Just that little thing. Thank you for coming over. You are the best.”

“I am. Truly.”

“Let me know when you’re home safe?” I ask, as he finishes up and hands me a platter of freshly caught fish.

“Of course.” He washes his hands with the soap I keep under the sink. The way he moves reminds me of how long we shared a life. I know his every step.

“Thank you for everything.”

“You’re welcome, Birdie,” he says, drying his hands on the towel I brought out for him. He sets it on the counter of the old vintage sink we’d found at an estate sale in Morro Bay, right after we got married. “I love you,” he says, as he brotherly side hugs me on his way out. His eyes tell me he’s not yet moved on. I ache that I can’t be the wife to him that I longed to be.

“I love you, too,” I say. Michael walks down the long sidewalk that leads out to our carport. I watch him as he goes and wonder how I ever deserved being loved by him. I’m grateful he walked alongside us for so long. He loves my boy and that alone is more than I can repay.