I need to quit this job, Charlie thought again, checking another day off her mental calendar where this concept had risen to consciousness. Two years of thinking the same thing each day still had not spurred her into any concrete action, such as rewriting her resume or opening a job search website. She smiled sweetly at the plump woman on the other side of the counter, protective hand rested on her inflated belly, the trademark of pregnancy everywhere. “Please have a seat, Dr. Kline will be with you shortly,” Charlie told her.
Receptioning for an Obstetrician/Gynecologist was a terrible job for someone recovering from a hysterectomy, especially for someone whose biological alarm clock had been blaring for three years prior to the diagnosis. She bit her tongue to keep the lump in her throat from swelling and tapped a few lines of data entry into her desk computer, trying to stop herself from hating Mrs. Gouli for nothing more than possessing a uterus that could hold a gestating child. Mrs. Gouli hadn’t given her cancer.
Charlie was cancer-free, now. In private, she darkly joked that she was baby-cancer-free. None of her friends thought the joke was funny. They tried to be supportive; in many ways they had been her salvation through the last five years. First, the breakup with Patrick—she mentally filled in the spit that her circle of friends had decided the name required as punctuation: Patrick-ptah!, every time—then the diagnosis. Endless nights of weeping into telephones and onto reassuring shoulders had proven those of her close circle who were in it with her for the long haul: Jan, Darla, Tim, and Vivy.
They were so committed to her that Jan and Vivy had both approached her and asked if it would be alright if they tried to get pregnant with their husbands. They asked her! It was especially touching to Charlie that Vivy had asked, knowing what she knew about Anil, Vivy’s husband. He was traditional, and he had wanted children right away. It was a challenge enough for Vivy to convince him to wait until she was done with grad school but despite his insistence that the family be started as soon as possible, Charlie never doubted that if she had told Vivy to wait, her friend would have done so, perhaps even to the detriment of her marriage.
Of course Charlie could do no such thing. Vivy had no part in Patrick-ptah! deciding two months before the wedding that he was too young to settle down. She hadn’t caused the cancer that had deprived Charlie of reproductive organs. The only request Charlie had made was for Vivy to use a different OB/GYN than Dr. Kline. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see her friend come in, pregnancy increasingly obvious. It was just that she didn’t think she could handle reading the charts of Vivy’s vibrant progress after every visit. She couldn’t stomach copying Dr. Kline’s loopy, hasty notes into the computer file and seeing the medical details that Vivy would never divulge to a cocktail party crowd about sore backs and difficulty sleeping and birthing plans and mucous plugs. Somehow those details elevated a pregnancy beyond social anecdote into reality for Charlie. She didn’t think she could be happy for Vivy if it were a real pregnancy as opposed to the sanitized, storybook pregnancies everyone seemed comfortable discussing over dinner.
But just keeping Vivy away from the office hadn’t made the job any better. There were still a parade of glowing, full-bellied, real pregnant women filing through the doors, cooing gentle whispers to their baby bumps and Charlie envied, loathed, and pitied them all by turns.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if the combination of her loss of reproductive ability hadn’t come with a devastating reset on her life progress. Patrick-ptah! was supposed to be her rock, the anchor that settled her life into the bliss of routine and comfort. Just when it seemed her fairy tale was going to come true, he had become the evil sorcerer, vanishing away and leaving her to fend for herself in a sea of handsy creeps and immature imbeciles. Tim insisted she never dwell again on spit-name (that was a Tim-ism). He gravely warned her that if she let thoughts of her guilt resurface he would withdraw their standing Sunday shopping appointment. But still she wondered what she might have done to drive her ex-fiancé away. She labored over what might have happened at that bachelor party; she berated herself for allowing it to happen at all. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that two days after a Vegas party full of strippers and beer and probably a lot of other things she had once been so sure she didn’t want to know about, he had suddenly declared himself too young to play the role of locked-down dad and husband.
The part about Patrick-ptah! not being ready to be a dad hurt the most. That had been the deal, that was the whole reason for the wedding. Charlie considered herself a worldly woman, a practical type: weddings were antiquated constructs that had been co-opted by a conservative society. Families were created through love and effort, not established by law. What was so bad about a commonlaw marriage? Domestic partnerships? She certainly didn’t need a document to cement her love for Patrick (no spit, then). And she wasn’t about to change her last name. Charlie Lamont was a fine name and she didn’t care to deal with the landmine that adopting Patrick’s last name of Brown would involve. But when it came to discussing children, Patrick had been adamant: If they were to have kids, they owed it to his parents to do it properly.
Charlie had found Patrick’s narrative about his parents bizarre. They didn’t seem to care that he had lived with and slept in the same bed as her for four years, but somehow if she came up pregnant without a ring on her finger they’d be inconsolably scandalized. Still, it was a minor concession. They arranged for a small, elegant wedding with family and a handful of friends followed by a vacation/honeymoon, to be followed as quickly as possible by a baby. It had been such a good plan. It had mostly been Patrick’s plan. Ptah!
The eight months of painful, awful divorce—Charlie thought of it so; again, to her the marriage was a parentally required technicality—had just begun to recede when the diagnosis came. Dr. Kline performed the examination resulting in a specialist visit, a biopsy, exploratory surgery and hysterectomy. Malignant uterine cancer: operable, but the result would render Charlie without the necessary plumbing to procreate. Two dreams smashed in the span of a year.
And now she kept coming back to the scene of the crime, torturing herself daily while happy women received happier news that would never reach Charlie’s ears. “You’re pregnant.” Or, “It’s a boy!” Or, “Looks like things are progressing as normal, let’s just try to find the heartbeat…”
It wasn’t that Charlie couldn’t find a different job. She was very over-qualified for receptionist work: She had a degree in English Literature, she was tech savvy and had enough medical training to be within four months of a nursing certification. There were plenty of other opportunities. But Charlie felt obliged to Dr. Kline. She had saved Charlie’s life twice.
“Charlotte?” Dr. Kline called around the corner.
“Coming,” Charlie said, springing out of her chair and stepping into the wood-paneled hall where she and the doctor discussed confidential matters as it was the only place in the tiny office that wasn’t directly visible from either the exam rooms or the lobby. “What’s up?”
“I just got paged that Mrs. Lind is in labor and I need to go over to the hospital to attend to her. Please re-schedule the next five or so appointments and notify the afternoon patients that if they want to play it safe, I’m happy to bump them to tomorrow.”
“Sure thing, Dr. Kline,” Charlie said. In a small, one-doctor practice like Dr. Donna Kline’s, this kind of schedule shuffling was not at all uncommon and most of the patients were very understanding, assuming that, when time came for their babies to be born, they would get higher priority than annual pap smears and routine check-ups. For the few patients who expressed displeasure about juggling their already packed schedules, there was an understanding among the town’s four principal OB/GYNs that late-day appointments were kept open to permit patient transfers from other practices in case one of these births threw a doctor’s schedule off and a patient insisted on having their appointment honored.
As common as it was, the aftermath of an unexpected labor tended to be Charlie’s least favorite part of the job, aside from the agony of watching other women living out her dream. She returned to her desk and notified the pregnant woman flipping through a copy of People magazine about the situation and after a few minutes of negotiation they settled on a new appointment early the next week. After another forty minutes on the phone, Charlie was surprised and enthused by the universal understanding of the daily line-up of appointments, all of whom were happy to re-schedule. A few of the annual exams, those who were seeing Dr. Kline for gynecology and not obstetrics, sounded relieved to push the appointment back. She didn’t quite understand the fear of the annual appointment: Dr. Kline’s famous no-pain techniques made the exams uncomfortable by circumstance only.
Feeling glad to have a rare half-day, Charlie paged the doctor to inform her of the afternoon’s clear schedule. Dr. Kline thanked her and told her to wrap up the paperwork and lock up the office, cheerily bidding her to enjoy the half day. Charlie thanked her and whipped through the end-of-day chores in under a half hour, happy to know as she locked the door behind her that her boss would not count these unfettered hours when it came time for payroll.
As she walked into the parking lot, Charlie tapped a couple of text messages out to Jan and Tim, the only two of her friends likely to be available at 2:00 pm on a Thursday, seeing if either or both were interested in coffee. Tim replied right away with an apology; he was busy driving his boyfriend to the airport. Jan responded after Charlie had already situated herself in her car and turned on the ignition, saying she was interested but couldn’t be free for a few hours. Charlie tapped her fingers against the steering wheel in pouty dismay. It would be such a waste for her to spend the unexpected freedom moping again in her apartment, listening to Etta James and Billie Holiday, staring at the blank sheets of canvas in her tiny studio but unable to bring herself to pick up a brush.
In a desperate gamble, with the car still idling in the parking lot, she sent two more messages to Vivy and Darla then pulled out and started driving aimlessly. Her phone blooped a few minutes later: Vivy replying that she was stuck in a meeting and couldn’t get away. Darla simply didn’t respond and after close to thirty minutes of aimless, frustrated driving, Charlie pulled off to refill her gas tank and started to resign herself to the apartment, the memories, the empty canvases, and the sad music.
As she wrestled with the nozzle, she considered a last-ditch plan. At first the idea was insanity, but the prospect of re-living fights with Patrick-ptah! and the unwinnable battle to avoid drinking before five if she went home eventually gave her new notion appeal.
She’d been on a dozen dates with Dell Thane so far. Most had been pleasant enough, if not exactly torrid. He seemed awkward and reserved, easy enough to engage in simple, superficial conversation, but so guarded Charlie didn’t know if she could take another long talk about The Simpsons or how Facebook had changed dating. They had shared an awkward hug at the end of their first date; kissed lightly at the end of the sixth. A week ago she had met him for a nice dinner of seafood and wine, and the resulting passion had consisted of a thirty second kiss without tongue followed by a twenty second kiss with a little tongue and a long embrace.
Charlie’s moral compass permitted far more than these sorts of chaste expressions of interest, and was finding herself increasingly insulted by their timidity. She’d been on far worse dates with boorish, uninterested men whom had nevertheless expected her to join them in bed as some sort of consolation adieu. She’d had briefer affairs since Patrick-ptah! that had gotten vastly more intimate than this. Dell was a nice guy, handsome and sweet, but she got the feeling there was no heat between them and without any chemistry, it felt like it was a doomed relationship. She was happy to be patient if necessary, perhaps had been too eager in the first month or so to ascribe Dell’s timidity as endearing shyness or respectful restraint. But at this point and in most ways, it didn’t even feel like a relationship. Her friends, ever pragmatic about her love life now, referred to Dell as “Dull.”
Charlie didn’t have any other prospects. She was still in her work scrubs: soft cotton in maroon that she always felt looked vaguely pajama-like, incapable of making a solid first impression. She couldn’t go home to change, that would defeat the purpose. It was Dell or no one. She scrolled to his number and instead of the customary text message, chose a direct phone call. At least I’ll know right away, she thought, cursing Darla for not getting back to her and therefore forcing her into this hasty plan. She snorted at the half-joke that calling Darla directly hadn’t crossed her mind.
Dell picked up on the first ring. “Howdy, Charlie,” he said. He sounded happy to hear from her.
“Hi, Dell,” she started, panicking that she hadn’t rehearsed this call in the least. “Uh, you wouldn’t happen to be free at all this afternoon, would you?” She knew he worked from home for a big tech firm out in California, but she had no idea what kind of hours he kept. For someone she referred to as a person she was dating, this struck her as peculiar.
“I’m free now,” he said, sending her spirits high.
“Oh! Great, I just got half the day off work unexpectedly and thought, you know, maybe you’d like to grab a cup of coffee.”
“I’d love to.” There was a pause, long enough to be noticeable but not entirely awkward. “Give me fifteen minutes to make some arrangements, and I can meet you wherever you like,” he said at last.
“Sure, no sweat,” Charlie replied, “do you know where Java Cafe is?”
“Out on tenth,” Dell said, “I know the place.”
“I’ll just be there whenever you can stop by,” Charlie said, cringing as she said it from how desperate it sounded.
“Fifteen minutes,” Dell assured her, “no more.”
“See you there.”
“Okay, bye!” The line went silent.
Charlie exhaled, replaced the nozzle on the pump and requested a receipt from the digital payment processor and climbed back in to make her way to Java Cafe.
By Charlie’s calculations, Dell took thirteen minutes and forty-six seconds to arrive. He showed up in a rust-colored thermal shirt and tattered blue jeans, a marked departure from the smartly tailored suits that had been his standard formal date attire. It was even a long distance from the most casual she’d seen him in their brief stint together, a sport coat over kahki’s he’d worn bowling. Charlie found herself very relieved he hadn’t dressed up for this impromptu meeting. She stood up when he approached her booth, and he pecked her on the cheek. She admired his green eyes, the slight scruff of reddish brown stubble on his shapely chin. She wondered again why he wasn’t inclined to progress their physical or emotional connection. Maybe he was gay? She had dated Tim for a week before he confessed to seeing her just to humor his mother, a patient of Dr. Kline’s.
“Dr. Donna’s receptionist is so pretty! If she won’t turn you straight, no one will!” Tim had later mocked. Hearing that someone you’ve gone out with isn’t straight would never be on top of Charlie’s Favorite Activities list, but she almost hoped Dell came out of the closet suddenly so she could stop frustrating herself by worrying it was the extra ten pounds she’d added to her hips since Patrick-ptah! left her.
“Am I on time?” Dell asked, sliding in across from Charlie as she flopped back into her seat.
“With some cushion to spare,” she said. He grinned. She liked how his face lit up when he smiled, and realized sadly she hadn’t seen him smile much in the last couple of months. She wondered with a sudden flash of panic if she was about to get dumped.
“You were keeping track,” he said, and Charlie noted it wasn’t a question.
“Me? No! I just have a… I have a preternatural sense of timing,” she lied through a grin of her own. Please let him not dump me today, she begged a god she had stopped believing in.
“I’ll have to remember that later, so my times always check out,” Dell said with a devilish sneer. Charlie took solace in reminding herself that guys who are about to dump girls don’t usually mention the future in togetherness terms.
“You know, I’m a pretty good amateur detective,” she said, hearing their banter sinking into its usual fun but superficial cadence. “You’d never be able to pull one over on me.”
Dell pretended to consider this carefully. “I’d never dream of attempting,” he said. “The wounded aren’t prone to wound.” Abruptly, Charlie wasn’t sure what they were talking about. She opened her mouth to ask him to explain when the waitress came over.
“What can I get you?”
Charlie wanted to holler, “Some privacy!” but repressed it as Dell opened one of the tiny menus and scanned it.
“How about a cafe mocha and one of these blueberry scones?”
“Sure thing, hon,” the waitress said, sending a surge of protectiveness through Charlie. She realized she had no particular claim to Dell; she wasn’t even sure they were exclusive, had never discussed with him such details. In fact, the jesting exchange about reliability was as close as they had come to ever talking about themselves as a couple, a fact which alarmed her upon its realization.
The waitress was young enough to be flirty rather than patronizing with her endearment yet old and lumpy enough to not truly be a threat, unless Dell had a peculiar plump-coffeehouse-waitress fetish. Charlie realized she had no idea what kinds of things turned Dell on. Unwillingly her mind went back to the laundry list of details she knew about Patrick-ptah! Brown: Turn-ons included licking her armpits, being peed on in the shower, foot massages; turn-offs were limited to sex during menstruation and talk of child raising. The coffee house musak channel switched to a Billie Holiday song and Charlie fought the urge to demand the flirtatious waitress change the channel.
“…Sweetie?” The unheard question appeared to be directed at Charlie.
“I said, can I get you anything else?”
Charlie looked at Dell and saw the confused concern in his clear green eyes. She felt embarrassed. “No,” she said, “thank you.”
“Okay,” the waitress sniffed and shuffled away.
Charlie smiled bashfully at Dell. His face had resumed that simple, neutral expression she had come to associate with him, a kind of interested blank slate as though he were the most passively interested observer of her. It reminded her of a zookeeper inspecting a new acquisition, bringing to mind the concept of mercenary fascination. “Tell me about Patrick,” he said, making Charlie wonder if he could read her thoughts. The name from Dell’s lips stung her mind.
“What?” she stammered.
“You’ve mentioned your ex-fiancé a few times,” Dell began, “I’d like to hear the whole story.”
“If you don’t mind.”
“I… I guess I don’t mind,” Charlie said. Dell leaned back and threw an arm across the back of the booth, getting comfortable. “Where should I start? I guess he was my college sweetheart. We met junior year, dated for almost two years and then broke up when we both went back home after graduation.”
“Why didn’t you stay together?”
Charlie shrugged, “Patrick said long distance never worked. He assumed he’d get a job in New York City and I was headed back to my parent’s house, here, to get my teaching credentials and see if I could get enough freelance graphic design work to support myself until I could save up enough to move up there with him.”
“Did you ever teach?”
Charlie laughed. “No, I got sick instead. I never even got the credentials.”
“Sick?” Dell asked.
“Yeah,” Charlie said, realizing she hadn’t told Dell about the diagnosis yet, either, “a fairly rare viral infection that affects the abdomen. I was hospitalized for a couple of weeks and I had to take a lot of medicine for a while.” She paused, wondering how much to reveal, trying to determine what was pertinent to the question and what was unnecessary detail. “Patrick came right back when he found out. At the time, it seemed so sweet that he cared, that he sacrificed his future to make sure I was okay.”
“Why do you say, ‘at the time’?”
“Well, I think he was genuinely concerned, but I found out later the job hunt wasn’t going well for him and he had been running out of money. He didn’t want to go back and stay with his folks in Texas, so he figured he could play nursemaid to a sick ex-girlfriend for a bit. I guess. I never really heard the whole story.”
“But when he came to stay with you, you began dating?”
“I guess. It wasn’t ever discussed. He moved in to stay with me at first while I recovered, and then to help me out. The medicines were taxing, and had a lot of side effects. He was a big help during that time. Somewhere in there we began to be a couple again and he stopped crashing on the couch; he just moved to my bed.” Charlie wondered if that last bit was against some code of decorum for conversations with a new—what? Date? Boyfriend? Certainly not lover. Dell seemed to shine it on.
“So you guys were happy?”
Charlie had to think about this for a while. After so many months of agonizing over what she had done to push him away, what could have made him stop loving her, wondering how he could have shifted gears so dramatically, it was hard to think of her and Patrick as happy. But for a time, it did seem like things had been okay. They were just a couple, nothing particularly emotional about that, right? They went to parties and weddings together, they spent holidays together and took yearly vacations in each other’s company; they fought now and then, they made love regularly, they had their routines and their inside jokes. Happiness? Charlie wasn’t even sure what the word meant anymore. “As happy as two people can be, I guess? I know I was happy when he asked me to marry him.”
“And when he called the wedding off?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
Dell looked at her with a serious but not severe stare. “No. I mean, were you relieved at all?”
The question surprised Charlie, and she was surprised again that she didn’t have a straightforward answer. “I was devastated when he said he wanted to break up instead of getting married,” she said, choosing her words with care. “But, in a way, I was glad he didn’t go through with it just because he felt like it was an obligation.” She realized these words had never been spoken aloud, and she wasn’t even sure she had ever crystallized their sentiment completely in her mind. “I was thankful that he didn’t pretend,” she concluded. Dell nodded.
“That’s how I felt, too,” he said. The waitress stopped by at that moment and dropped off Dell’s drink order, hurrying away, seeming to sense the intensity of the conversation she was obliged to interrupt. Dell took a tentative sip from the mug and added, “When my wife asked me for a divorce.”
“I didn’t know you were married,” Charlie said.
“You didn’t ask.”
“Well I—” Charlie stopped herself, thought back to their previous dates and flushed, realizing she had spent very little time asking questions and trying to get to know Dell. Perhaps she was so used to self-centered guys who told their life stories whether you wanted to hear them or not she had presumed he was the same but didn’t have much to tell. That was also her fault for judging him based on other guys. She noted that the defining characteristic she associated with the man across the booth from her was a distinction from other men she’d known and dated. He didn’t seem to be un-manly, just lacking the swagger most men who shared an attraction with her wore like a lucky ballcap. “You’re right,” she said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I don’t exactly volunteer information, and plenty of women have said that makes me standoffish. At least,” he paused for another sip, “those who’ve bothered to tell me why they stop calling around.”
“You’ve had a bad time at dating,” Charlie observed.
Dell chuckled behind the rim of his mug. “I was built for long-term relationships, not casual flings.”
“Coming from anyone else, that would sound like such a line,” Charlie said, smiling.
“What does that mean,” Dell asked, returning the grin, “‘coming from anyone else’? What about me makes you think it’s not a line?”
Charlie bit her lower lip, debating on whether or not to broach the million-dollar question. Their impromptu coffee date had become something more, something serious. It felt like a pivotal moment, one that could influence the future significantly although she was unable to pinpoint how. She decided to put the cards on the table. “You’re not exactly… touchy feely,” she said, changing her phrasing at the last minute from the word she meant to use: “passionate.”
Dell looked thoughtful for a moment. His thick eyebrows closed together and he nodded just so. “Hm. Can I be blunt?”
“Uh-oh. That’s never a good opener,” Charlie said, trying to deflect with some light humor but feeling apprehensive. Something had been hovering over the conversation and she felt like it was about to drop.
“I don’t mean I’m going to be insulting,” Dell said, “but there’s no great way to sugar coat it.”
“Okay, lay it on me.”
“You say I’m not very touchy-feely?” Charlie nodded. “Well, you haven’t much given me the impression you want me to be.”
Charlie blinked at him. “I haven’t been touchy-feely?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I just mean you haven’t been giving me strong intimacy signals.”
“Maybe I’ve been misinterpreting you?”
“Usually guys are always ready for action, right? The date itself is a signal that a girl is at least open to giving him the chance. Most guys make their moves at the end of the date and just accept whatever reception they get.”
“Do you always classify people by what you’ve experienced in others?”
Charlie felt there were two distinct conversations going on, and she wasn’t following the one Dell was engaged in. “I beg your pardon?”
“You said ‘usually guys’ and ‘most guys’ as if you expected me to act like other guys you’ve met or dated. That’s ‘usual’ to you?”
“I never really thought about it.”
Dell sighed. “Look, Charlie, I like you. A lot. I think everything I know about you says to me we’d be great together. But you haven’t seemed very interested in me. I kept calling because you kept inviting me to do so at the end of our dates. And you kept accepting, so I thought maybe you were just trying to take it slow after your—you know—after Patrick. But now I’m confused because it sounds like you’re past Patrick, you’ve analyzed the relationship and are saying it was better that he didn’t string you along. I don’t know how many people who are still hung up on someone can say that about an ex. So if you’re over him and you think my problem is that I’m not touchy-feely when you haven’t given me much reason to think it would be okay for me to touch you—”
“Whoa,” Charlie said, “when did I indicate it wasn’t okay to touch me? You’ve barely kissed me, two months in!”
“Charlie,” Dell said in a gentle tone, reaching across the table and holding her hand, “I don’t know what expectations your past dating history has given you, but I don’t play by some set of rules. I don’t have the luxury of acting like I’m 22 anymore. I can’t just hop into bed with people because they went out for dinner with me.” He took a deep breath. “I’m not judging you, okay? I’m telling you how I do things. I don’t spend hours kissing girls who aren’t interested enough in me to ask how my entree is or where I grew up or what college I went to.”
“That sounds exactly like judgement,” Charlie grumbled, but she knew she was only sulking because Dell was absolutely right.
“I’m sorry,” he said, squeezing her hand once and then withdrawing it. “We probably should have had this conversation a while ago.”
“No,” Charlie said, reaching back and catching his hand before it could disappear over the table edge, “I’m the one who’s sorry. You’re right, you know.”
“Yeah. I’m just used to… to something else from guys. I shouldn’t be. But—” she felt a sudden surge of emotion, the sting of her eyes and that old lump inflating again and choking her from within. She hated herself for crying in front of Dell. “—But there’s—” her voice was coming out in hiccuping pre-sobs, “—some other things, some non-Patrick things—” she drew a deep breath and tried to center herself. “Some of the things that I struggle with the most don’t have anything to do with Patrick,” she made herself say.
Dell pulled his other hand up and covered Charlie’s, making a hand sandwich. “Charlie, look, it’s fine. If you aren’t attracted to me or don’t find me interesting; even if you want me to be someone I’m not, you won’t hurt my feelings with any of that. But I think that if you give me—the actual me, not the concept of me colored by the other guys you’ve known—a chance, I think you might see that we could really work.”
Charlie clamped her teeth down on her lip but it wasn’t enough to keep a pair of tears from spilling down her cheeks. “You should know something about me first,” she said.
“Okay. But when you’re done, I have something to say as well”
She nodded and took a shuddering breath. “Okay. The real reason Patrick left was because I want kids more than anything else in the world. I wanted a family, and I wanted them right away. Patrick and I were supposed to get married so we could start trying and what changed was that he just decided he didn’t want kids anymore. He knew it was a deal-breaker for me and he determined he couldn’t be tied down, couldn’t do the daddy thing.”
“That’s hardly unusual for a woman to want kids, Charlie,” Dell said. “But I’m sorry about your ex.”
“That’s not all.” Dell’s mouth, open and ready to continue, closed abruptly. “After Patrick left, I barely had a chance to cry about it when I was diagnosed with cancer. They operated on me, and they got it all. But as a result of that operation, I will never have children. So in a year I lost the family I was all set to have and the ability to ever have it, too.”
She broke down. She’d said those same things, given similar speeches to her friends in moments of confessional shoulder-leaning. But now she saying it to a guy she didn’t know very well, a guy who was somehow making his lack of physical attention to her over the past couple of months of dates seem both reasonable and justified. At the same time he was creating a very irresistibly confident and honorable persona from his hints of growing affection. He wasn’t gay, he wasn’t disinterested, he actually respected her. It made him deeply desirable and now she was dropping her problems on him—problems and revelations that would send many guys fleeing through the nearest door, leaving cartoon-like cutouts of themselves behind. The unjustness of having him suddenly feel like a potential relationship just as she guided it into ruination with her therapist-session issue-bombs.
Charlie’s eyes squeezed closed to block the view of the compassionate Dell and his rumpled brow showing genuine compassion and concern and not the least bit of panic. It hadn’t hit him yet, that was all. She sobbed and felt the snot run down her upper lip, the tears dripping down to collect on her chin and drop from there to her scrubs. She heard the snuffling, gasping wails of a humiliated girl who was blowing her chance with a good guy by displaying what a maintenance nightmare she would forever be.
Charlie felt the seat of the booth shift as Dell slid in next to her and wrapped a protective arm over her shoulder, pulling her in tight to his chest and cradling her while she felt the compassion and tenderness radiate from him. She hated his understanding for being exactly what her meltdown needed to continue. There was no hope of stemming the tide now. She buried her head into his chest and sobbed, noting in some distant part of her consciousness that he smelled like cinnamon and soil and Christmas trees. She thought she would like to smell that scent forever.
After what felt like hours she collected herself and lay with her head pressed against Dell for a few lingering minutes, afraid to look up at him and have to meet his kind green eyes with her swollen, tear-stained mess of a face. She was just happy she didn’t wear much makeup. Most girls she knew would have been ruined by a cry like that. Finally, she could avoid it no longer and she sat up, lifting her eyes to meet Dell’s focused, compassionate face.
“Feeling any better?” he asked.
“I’m truly sorry about your pain. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said, hearing how dumb it sounded as it came out.
“No,” Dell smiled, “but I’m sorry I made you have to talk about it today.”
“It’s alright,” Charlie said, and meant it. “I think about it every day, so talking about it—well, I guess actually it does help a little bit. So I take it back, I do feel better. A tiny bit.”
“Okay, good,” Dell said, giving her shoulder one last squeeze. “Hey, Charlie?”
“Will you be my girlfriend?”
Charlie blinked at him. “You’re asking me—”
“Be my girl,” Dell said. “I like you. I want to see where this goes.”
“I know. You’re hurting. That’s okay. I’m a patient guy. Who knows? Maybe I can even help. But mostly, I just don’t want to not try. If you’re willing to give me a chance.”
“Okay,” Charlie said, not sure she could imagine Dell being any more surprising than he was. She noticed she liked that about him. “Yes, Dell. I’ll be your girlfriend.”
His face collapsed into the broadest grin she’d ever seen. She coughed a teary laugh at his exuberance. “Wonderful!” he said. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a couple of rumpled bills and dropped them on the table. “Come on,” he said, “let me take my new girlfriend for a ride.” He stood and held out a hand to Charlie, who accepted it and let him help her to her feet.
“Uh, okay. Where are we going?”
“I want you to meet somebody,” Dell said cryptically.
“My daughter,” he said. “She’s three. Her name is Cindy.” He folded his hand into hers, interlacing their fingers and led her toward the cafe door. “She is going to love you.” Charlie floated through the parking lot.