Before: Part 3: After – Chapter: 3

Christian

The connections we have with family are supposed to be soul binding. We’re supposed to love our parents and siblings and the rest simply because we are born with the same blood running through our veins. As a young child, he would question this. Was he supposed to love the stumbling man whose loud voice regularly woke him up on school nights? The man whom he would walk out into the living room and see there, leaning against the fireplace mantel in a struggle to take his boots off? The little boy would keep his body hidden behind the wall as he watched the man struggle and fall to the floor. Then he would hurry back to his room as the man’s boot hit the wall near his head.

He hated those nights and he would count the days until his mummy’s friend who laughed a lot would come over. He would wish that his mum’s friend was his dad. Maybe this other man would take him places, he used to think. He remembered the man always carrying a book tucked under his arm. He talked about the books with the boy, telling him their plots, their themes, making him feel smart and grown-up.

The first book the man gifted him he will always remember. That book quickly became the boy’s first real friend, and as he grew older and his mum’s friend came around less and less, he remembered missing him and missing the books during the long periods between visits. Still, even into the boy’s rebellious teenage years, when the man arrived, he always had books with him. The boy knew his mum loved her friend, but he had no idea just how much of his life was a lie because of that fact.

The house is silent. I glance over at Kim, asleep on the couch with Karina lying on her stomach; the girl’s little hands are gripping her mum’s sweater. Kim fell asleep talking to her about me and my accent, telling our little girl that she will have the most adorable voice, a mixture of Mummy’s sweet tones and Daddy’s devilish accent. “Devilish,” she called it. As if the woman can afford to talk. She’s the most stubborn, devilish woman on this earth, and I love the hell out of her.

Kimberly has gone from being my secretary to my business partner, and she has quite an eye for potential. Perhaps that’s why she married me. Or maybe she just really, really likes my son, Smith. It would be pretty hard not to.

A pile of pages sits before me on the counter: a contract for the New York restaurant we’ll be opening in the next year. As exciting as it is, it’s nothing compared to my newborn. I’ve now expanded my investments in restaurants from Washington to New York to Los Angeles, but it’s nothing compared to the joy of getting to see this girl grow up before my eyes, something I’ve not been fortunate enough to have done with my other children.

I glance over at my wife again; snoring louder than usual. So I do the sweet, loving thing and pull out my phone to record her. The contract can wait until tomorrow. I miss my wife. I watch her as she takes breath; the noise is horrendous.

I press record and quietly walk over to the couch. Within five seconds, she opens her eyes, immediately glaring at the phone in my hand, and instantly I feel like an arse for disrupting her sleep when she gets so little of it anymore.

“Aren’t you supposed to be working?” my love whispers, her voice soft and sleepy as she stretches her arm above her head, keeping her eyes on Karina.

“Yes, my dear, but fucking with you is much more fun.” I laugh, and she kicks her foot out at me. Karina stirs on her chest, opening her little beady eyes to look up at her obnoxious parents.

“Now you’ve done it,” Kimberly scolds me with a smile. She sits up and lifts Karina at the same time, and when I reach for my daughter, she gently places the soft bundle in my arms.

“My beautiful little girl,” I quietly say to Karina, nudging her chubby little cheek with my nose. She yawns, and I see so much of my smile in her face. Smith and Hardin both have that same dimpled smile.

I remember Anne and Ken discussing names for the little boy one night when we were all standing around in their kitchen. Trish’s belly had been so swollen that she couldn’t tie her shoes.

“I like the name Nicholas or Harold,” Ken had suggested.

Harold? No.

Nicholas. Double no.

Trish had smiled softly, rubbing her hand on her bump. “Harold—I kind of like that.”

Admittedly, I didn’t hate the name—it just didn’t feel right. That boy was tough on Trish’s body, kicking her all night and growing so quickly that he stretched her skin to incredible lengths. He was a fighter, that kid… the name Harold—Harry—it was too sweet of a name, too calm.

“It’s too common,” I’d interjected before Ken could say anything. “How about the name Hardin?”

It was a name I had picked out for my first child while I was only a teen. As a little boy in Hampstead, I used to think I was going to write a great novel one day and the main character would be named Hardin. Not typical, but very convincing-sounding for old England.

Trish sounded it out to see how it felt on her tongue. “Har-din. I’m not sure…”

But when she looked to her husband—who I was so jealous of in that instant—he’d just shrugged, uninterested but trying to be courteous.

“It sounds fine,” he said quietly.

His shoulders did another shrug, and Trish smiled a weak smile. “Hardin?… Hardin.”

“There we have it, then,” Ken declared, looking very relieved.

Trish didn’t seem surprised or even bothered by his mild reaction to the choosing of their first son’s name. I cared, though, and I knew Trish really did as well.

I would like to think that Ken would normally have cared, but he was in college and always busy, I had reasoned at the time. He studied so much, and rumors flew that he’d started snorting the devil’s candy while studying for his law exams. His pupils were usually dilated, but he had to study a lot, and I got that. I wasn’t anyone to judge him, but I knew he had been slipping on the facade of being a perfect dad to the little guy, trying it on uncertainly, long before the tyke was even here yet. That bothered me more than it should have, given the situation I’d gotten myself into.

Two decades ago…

The sun is hot, blazing for Hampstead in April. Trish lies beside me on the grass, the wind whipping her thick brown hair across my face, which she found to be the most entertaining moment of her entire sixteen years in this world. Most of the time she’s mature for her age, going on and on about her theories about the world and its leaders, but in this moment she’s choosing to be the eleven-year-old version of herself.

I push her hair away from my face for the tenth time.

“Weren’t you supposed to be cutting that gargantuan mane?” I ask cheekily as I scoot my body a few inches away from hers. Last week she claimed that she was planning to cut all of her hair off to prove some point, but I forget what the point actually was.

Hampstead Towne Park is nearly empty today, so Trish’s laugh echoes off the trees enclosing us in the grass. We come here often, but most of the time Ken misses our meetings because he’s so busy.

“I was considering it, but this is too much fun,” she replies. Trish rolls her body closer to mine and throws her brown hair across my face once more. It smells like flowers and a little bit like mint. It’s a scent that always pulls me in. Her body is pressed to my side, and she kicks her leg up over mine.

I should move it, but I don’t. It feels too nice there.

“What if babies were born with long hair?”

Her question is random, but not one bit surprising. Trish Powell is known for her questions. What if this? What if that? It’s her thing, and I find it equal parts weird and cool. She’s so different from all the girls at my school—even the girls at the local university aren’t like her. Her wild hair was the first thing I noticed when I met her, and now it’s become the biggest problem in my Tuesday afternoon.

“Did we really skip class to talk about babies coming out of their mums’ bodies with rocker hair?” I ask.

I open my eyes and roll onto my stomach to get a good look at her. She has so many freckles. I want to connect them with my fingertips and watch her eyes flutter closed in delight.

“No, I suppose not.” She giggles, and I follow her eyes to the shadow approaching us. Ken sits down on the grass, and I watch his eyes change from the moon to the sun as he studies Trish’s face.

She smiles back at him, and Ken looks like he’s won the lottery as he makes his way through the tall grass. I can’t tell if she notices the way he looks at her. I’ve always noticed it—and gotten used to pretending it doesn’t burn like acid through my veins.

It’s common knowledge that of the two of us, he’s the better man.

The sun is becoming too hot on my skin, and I stand, shading my eyes with one hand. “I’m going to head out—I have a date,” I say, and wipe my hands on my jean shorts. Seeing their brown hue against the faded denim, I again marvel how I’ve gotten quite the tan over the summer. Trish mentions it almost daily. It must be from hanging out with her so much.

Trish rolls her eyes and mouths something rather dirty to both of us. Ken flushes just a little in the apples that are his cheeks. His hair is growing long, looking ratty where it starts to cover the back of his neck. There are dark bags under his brown eyes from studying like a madman to prepare for his entry exam into law school. Ken Scott is the most stable student in Trish’s and my entire level; I have no idea how someone like him ended up becoming our best friend. I suppose Trish is a tad more stable than me. She’s firecrackers and sunshine, but she’s also cool stone and steady waves. She knows when to cut loose and when to be cautious and smart. I’ve always loved that about her.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Ken says when I stand. He comes a little closer to me; he’s taller than me by a few inches. I nod, waiting for him to begin, but then seeing his eyes focus on Trish, I catch on that he means alone and gesture for him to lead the way. I follow him for about twenty meters, at which point he stops next to an old metal bench. He sits first and pats the empty space next to him.

He’s acting so serious—should I be worried? A young couple walks past us, their hands linked together. Ken waits for them to pass and my worry to rise before he finally speaks.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” he says. His brows draw down, making him look much older than seventeen.

“You’re not dying, are ye?” I push my shoulder into his, and he relaxes a fraction.

He shakes his head. “No, no. It’s not that.” The noise he makes is half laugh, half nervous titter.

What could he be so tense about? I wish he would just spit it out.

“I-want-to-ask-Trish-to-be-mine,” he breathes out in one long syllable.

Now I wish I could cram the words back inside his anxious face, or that maybe he was dying. Okay, not something so harsh, but something else. Anything else.

“To be your… what?” I struggle to keep my composure.

Ken’s eyes roll. “My girl, you twat.”

I want to tell him that he can’t have her, that it isn’t fair that he’s the one who gets to ask her first. Give her a choice, I want to tell him. She was always supposed to be mine, I want to argue.

“Why are you telling me?” comes out instead.

My friend sits back against the bench and rests his palms against his knees. “I just wanted to make sure…” he starts, but the words are trapped behind his tongue.

And in that sudden silence I realize I’m caught between being honest with my best friend and making him happy. It’s impossible to do both.

I break into a smile, choosing his happiness over mine.

I’m not surprised when Trish accepts Ken’s offer, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hold on to some fraction of hope that maybe she loves me, too. She loves stability more, though, and so for the next year, I avoid every thought of Trish being anything other than my best mate’s girlfriend. Sometimes when they kiss in front of me, I catch her looking at me for approval after they’ve pulled away from each other. I keep that little morsel of hope alive, and it makes my year a very rough one. When I fuck, I think of her. When I kiss, I taste her.

I have to stop.

It’s an easy task at first. I stop comparing all the girls I date to her. She stops slipping her hand through mine when we’re talking. I begin to see the world differently now that I no longer think of her as a tether to home. She’s no longer keeping me here. Nothing is.

I’ve outgrown Hampstead. I know it. Trish knows it. Even the local bakery has grown suspicious of my recent behavior and the fact that my weekly trips to buy sweets there have tapered down to nothing.

Suddenly I crave more of this world than living in this town. I want to move to the States, away from the daft minds of my mates who have no plans for their futures—and even farther away from my two favorite lovers. I’ve quickly become a fifth wheel with Ken and Max and their ladies. I want to learn more about the world, about people in general, and I can’t settle down here. Everyone around me has their roots firmly planted here already. They’ve opened up bank accounts and chosen a local university. I can already foresee their ambition short-circuiting when they take their first job doing what one of their parents did. They settle into these roles and never audition for any others.

Trish has become one of them. She’s gone from being an excited liberal arts major to barely attending her classes. She and Ken moved into a small apartment across from the campus of his school to save travel time. He’s a mess lately, working so much. Every time I see him he’s behind a stack of textbooks. Trish is less of a lover and more of a mother to him now. She sets his alarm clock every evening. She makes sure his clothes are clean and laid out on their bed in the morning. She makes his coffee, his breakfast, packs his lunch. She waits for him to get home, she feeds him a hot meal and is ignored in favor of his books, and then the next day the same tedious cycle repeats all over again. She’s no longer the vibrant risk-taking flower child she once was. She’s the overworked and underslept waiting woman. Because of her efforts, their apartment is as clean as it is small, and she’s managed to charm up the place. Trish has even taken in a stray kitten and named it Gat after one of my favorite characters. I suspect Ken doesn’t care for the creature, or the name she chose.

Her what-if games that I enjoyed on the hill become less and less frequent every day, and more and more of what she expresses can be called free-floating anxiety. She no longer indulges in flights of fancy that entertain us both; instead she worries about minute things, and I’m no longer a playmate in a grassy field, but someone who has to reassure her, even though I’m not the first in her heart.

Even through this, though, she still keeps her humor—and I pray to God each night that she won’t lose it completely. The more often I stop by, the brighter she seems to burn. I make it a point to stop by weekly, then twice a week, as she asks me to do. The hours Ken’s gone become longer, leaving their home emptier. She shares with me her worries and whispers her darkest questions into the dark room. I pretend to have all the answers, and like a good friend to them both, I encourage her to share her fears with her lover.

Quickly, I regret this decision. One night, a rare night when Ken is at home and not studying, we’re all sitting around the kitchen table, each of us with a glass of whiskey in hand. During a lull in the awkward conversation in which we try to catch up with one another’s recent life, Ken refills his glass. He doesn’t bother to look for ice—he never does anymore.

Trish sighs loudly and gets up, only to go into their small living room and sit on the arm of their couch. “What if the whole world exists in a glass case inside some alien child’s bedroom, like an ant farm of sorts?” I swear Trish’s accent grows deeper each time she drinks.

“What a fucked-up question,” I snort, the whiskey burning in my nostrils. Ken doesn’t break a smile; his lips don’t even make the slightest upturn. I get up to stretch, to not be the only one sitting at the table with him.

“Fine. What if the world ends tomorrow, proving that we all are wasting our time working so hard and sleeping so little?” Her eyes are light in the dim room. Gat climbs up onto her lap, and she runs her fingers through his burnt-orange fur.

I begin to think through her question. If I died tomorrow, would she know how much I ache for her? How much I love her?

Ken finally laughs, but his comment is not what I expected. “Working hard? As if you know anything about that.”

He’s smiling now, head tilting back in a sinister way as he leans over the table. Gat seems to sense the threat as Trish takes in a deep breath. I’ve never seen them fight, but if they do, my money is on Trish. The cat jumps down and prances off into the hallway. I should follow it—I should leave and stay out of this—but I can’t.

Ken lifts his glass to his lips and gulps down the remainder of the brown liquor in his tumbler.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly have heard that correctly,” Trish says through her teeth.

I ignore the way my hands shake under the table when he stands up and starts raising his voice. I ignore my instinct to tackle him and shake him until he wakes up from this sleepwalking state he’s been slipping into lately, a state in which he starts yelling at her, calling her terrible names, and saying terrible things about her. I ignore the way my stomach feels like surging lava when she slaps him across the face. I ignore the way her tears burn through the flesh of my arms as I hold her on the couch, after he’s been gone for thirty minutes, drunk as a fish and out driving somewhere even though he’s incapable of walking straight—but after the way he stormed out of here, not bothering to turn around when I called after him, I’m glad he’s gone.

“What if he doesn’t come back?” Trish’s lips tremble as she finally starts to calm down, her head on my chest.

“And what if he does?” I ask her.

She sighs and squeezes my hand between hers. I look down at her face, and my heart aches. She’s so beautiful, even when her lips are red from chewing at them, and her eyes are swollen from wetting them with her tears. She’s calm now, her eyes stuck on my lips.

“What if I’m losing sight of the man I thought I knew?” Trish’s question comes out quickly, her next even more so. “What if I would rather have attention than a stable life?”

She seems frantic now, pushing her fingers through her thick brown hair. She faces me, squaring off her shoulders. “What if I confused friendship with love? Do you think Ken and I did that?”

She looks down at my hands, which are reaching for her without my having realized it.

“I don’t know,” I say, pulling my hands back to run them over my hair and then sitting back against the couch. I confused friendship and love when I chose friendship over my feelings for Trish, but now my best friends have made a life together. The problem they face isn’t a lack of love, it’s a lack of time. That’s all. He loves her, and if she loved me rather than him, she would have told me long before now.

She moves onto her knees on the couch, just to reach me. Her hand moves to my hair, and she pushes it back for me. “What if it’s not that simple?”

Can she sense how I feel for her? Is that why she’s moving closer and closer with every rise of her chest?

When her face is only an inch from mine, she looks me straight in the eyes. “Do you ever think of me?”

The whiskey on both of our breaths hangs in the air even though both of us had far less to drink than Ken. There I go mentioning Ken again; it’s like his presence is everywhere in this apartment. He marked Trish’s body as his; he lies with her every night. He gets to feel her breasts under his palms. He gets to touch the pale skin on her stomach, her thighs. Her lips touch him. He tastes her…

And I never will.

“I shouldn’t…” I say.

But I would be a fool not to think of her slender hips and perfect skin. I watched her grow up, and fantasizing about her was a daily, constant thing.

Trish is pleased by my answer. I can see it in the way she licks her lips while staring at mine, the way her mouth is slightly open. Does this mean she’s been having… well, having thoughts about me? Why else would she ask?

When her eyes flicker to my eyes, then back to my mouth, common sense and self-restraint are no longer in my vocabulary, and I wrap my hand in her hair and pull her mouth to mine. I take her mouth slowly, claiming every bit of her tongue, her lips. She’s mine in this moment, and we’re both taking full advantage of it. Quickly she grows eager, aggressive in her movements, and shoves me to the floor and climbs onto my torso. The look on her face is one of deep relief as she slips her tongue back inside my mouth. I groan, lifting my hips to meet hers. I’m hard for her, and I want her to feel it.

Her fingers lace through mine, and she guides them between her legs. She’s excited to show me how wet she is; she’s ready to confess her need for me. I’m ready, too, and I show her when I grind my hips up into her; she curses, begging me to take this to the next level.

Can we—

“What if we get caught?” she asks, pulling back only a fraction.

I don’t know if I care as much as I always thought I would.

“What if we don’t?” she then says to herself and silences any further questions either of us may have with her tongue between my lips and her hands unbuttoning my trousers. Her hand slips inside, gripping me, and I melt into her. My fears of being caught by an angry Ken, my knowledge that she is not mine for the taking, the anxiety I’m filled with when I think of leaving here—all of it melts. The only thing I can think of is being buried in her, needing every part of her.

I tug at my trousers, pulling them down along with my boxers. Her mouth is tasting me, tongue probing, licking the swollen vein down my center. She closes her eyes, relishing the way her wet mouth takes me all the way into her throat, then back up. She’s becoming less cautious as she devours me, quickly yet efficiently. She’s pleasing me as if she won’t ever taste me again. It’s true that she won’t.

“Lie down, facing up, legs spread wide. I want to look at you,” I tell her. I have to look at her while I finally have what I want beneath me. Trish moves toward the center of the carpet, dragging the dark cherry coffee table to one side. She quickly undresses, and I don’t mind, because watching her is something else. Her long cotton dress is falling to her feet, and her arms are already lifting the straps of her simple white bra. My eyes follow the curve of her body; her nipples are tight little pebbles as my gaze passes them. Her stomach is tight; the muscles on her torso curve down to her hipbones.

I’m throbbing and heavy in my hand when I reach her. She’s lying down on the carpet, her legs spread wide for me. My cock hangs heavy between us, and I can smell the wetness of her pussy. I swear I can feel how tight she’ll be. I inch closer, pushing against her until I slowly fill her. She feels like a damn glove as I thrust in and out of her. I don’t think I can stop this, ever. I already need more of her. Trish’s eyes have rolled up into her head, and I know I’m not going to be able to hold on much longer. I rock my hips, and she wraps her thighs around my waist. She’s coming, she says, “so hard,” she whimpers, clawing into my arms as I fuck harder.

I spill into her, wishing this wasn’t the first and only time I’ll be able to enjoy her body in this way. She’s breathing hard into my shoulder, and I’m kissing the wet marks on her neck from my previous licks.

Minutes later, we’ve returned to reality with a crash of sore arms and legs, of sweat and exhausted breaths. Trish is sitting on the floor, legs crossed, and I’m on the couch, keeping as much distance between us as possible.

“What if we can’t stop?” she says, looking at me, then toward the kitchen table.

I’m not sure what to do. Not sure what I want, what she wants. Not sure what’s possible. “We have to,” I say dumbly. “I’m leaving next month.”

Even though she’s heard me say this—even though she helped me book my flight—she turns her head to me suddenly, looking as if she’s hearing the news for the first time.

Then, without a word, she nods her head, both of us feeling a storm of guilt and relief and loss for something we truly never had.

The wondrous present…

Ken was my friend—my closest friend, I would say—and I was obsessively mad about his wife. I loved the crazy woman and the fire that burned along with her presence. She was challenging and brilliant—my weakness. It was unacceptable what we were doing, and she knew that. She knew it, but neither of us could help it. We were stuck, victims of bad timing and worse choices. It wasn’t our fault, I would convince myself each time I collapsed, spent and panting, onto her naked body. We simply couldn’t help it; it wasn’t our fault. It was the universe, it was the circumstances of our situation.

I was raised that way. I was taught as a young boy that nothing was my fault. My dad was always right, even when he wasn’t, and he taught his eldest son to think the same way. I was a spoiled child, but not by money. During the times I got to spend with my father, I was taught his arrogance. My father never owned up to any of his mistakes; he never had to. I learned that in life there was always someone else to blame. I tried to be a different father than he was, a better one.

Kimberly says I’m doing a great job at that. She praises me much more than I deserve, but I’ll take it. She can dish it out, too—her mouth is worse than my university mates’ after a twelve-pack of cheap piss-water beer.

“Put Karina to bed and I’ll be waiting for you.” Kimberly kisses me on the cheek and gently slaps my bum, winking and grinning as she prances into our bedroom.

I love that woman.

Karina makes a little burping sound in her sleep, and I gently rub at her back. One of her tiny hands rises up and grasps mine.

I still can’t believe I’m a dad again. I’m old now. Patches of gray hair keep popping up here and there.

After Rose passed and it was just Smith and me, I never expected to have another child. Or to discover that I had already had another child. Still less than that, particularly given the way things started, I never expected to have a twenty-one-year-old son in my life as a friend and man. Hardin went from being my biggest regret to my greatest joy. I used to fear for his future, so much so that I hired him at Vance just to make sure he had a job.

What I didn’t expect was for him to turn out to be a goddamn genius. He was struggling so hard during his teens that I thought he was going to ruin or end his life before it really ever began. He was so pissed off all the time, and the little shit that he was gave his poor mum hell.

I watched Hardin go from being a troubled and lonely young boy to a bestselling author and advocate for troubled youth. He’s become everything I could have dreamed for him to be. Smith looks up to Hardin in every way, with the glaring exception of his tattoos, which they both love to argue over. Smith finds them tacky, and Hardin loves to show Smith each new tattoo he manages to somehow squeeze onto his already covered skin.

I look down at the sleeping beauty in her crib and switch on the night-light on the dresser while I silently promise this sweet, precious girl that I’ll be the best father I can possibly be.


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