Two days before Valentine’s Day, a Friday, you give one dozen red roses, candy, a mixed CD, and a card, in which you use the word love. You are the first to use the word love. On Valentine’s Day, our relationship will be 30 days old.
Don’t think I made you a mixed CD because you made me one, you say.
I don’t think that, I say. I glance briefly at the list of songs on the CD, and then I put it aside. I want to be surprised, I say. When I listen to it, on my way home, the songs you have picked surprise me. I have not heard half of them, and in one, an Ani DiFranco song you taped at a show you attended, I can hear your laugh at something she says. The CD is probably my favorite of your Valentine’s Day gifts. You could have given me it, and just it, and I would have said that this is one of my favorite Valentine’s Days ever. Better than flowers and chocolate. You put thought into each song. You put thought into me. Possibly Maybe, one of the songs; possibly maybe, probably love.
I think that making CDs for each other is easier than saying I don’t ever want to lose you. Don’t leave me. I don’t know how to handle how much I feel for you. Here is the closest thing to my heart that I can give you. I offer it freely. Please take it and protect it and love it, and if you want, love me, too.
I don’t have anything for you. I hadn’t expected to exchange gifts tonight. I’m sorry.
Don’t worry about it, you say. I don’t mind waiting.
We are spending Valentine’s Day itself with my son, Avery. Your request. I want family time, you say. Already you and me and Avery are becoming a family.
We order sushi. You pay, though I say the least I can do is pay for dinner. Happy Valentine’s Day, rabbit, you say. This is the first time you call me rabbit.
Rabbit?, I ask.
You’re my rabbit, you say
Our first night, you say. White rabbit.
But I called you white rabbit, I say.
Doesn’t matter, you say. You’re my rabbit.
I feel the invisible cords connecting me to you tighten. The cords, comprised of words like yours, mine, ours, us, family, bind me more closely to you than the wedding ring you don’t know I wear when I’m not with you binds me to Holly.
Before we leave to get our sushi, we drink some wine. We are in your bed, and you tell me that you keep people away on purpose. I don’t know why, rabbit, you say. I just do. I used to think I would need to find two people, you say. I didn’t think I would find one man who could challenge me mentally and emotionally and physically. I had given up, or just about given up. I was tired of trying. I was tired of trying and failing.
You’ve let me in, I say.
I can’t help but let you in, you say. I shouldn’t tell you that, but I can’t help it. And you start to cry, and I reach for your tears and wipe them off of your cheeks. I lick your tears off of my fingers and I taste salt and I taste you. I hope I’m not making a mistake, you say, and your voice cracks, and I have not known your voice to crack, and I do not want to hear your voice crack. Intimacy isn’t possible without the risk of pain, I think. The closer you get to someone, the more they can hurt you. Please don’t hurt me, I think, and I’ll try not to hurt you.
Do you believe in the one?, I ask.
The one person we are each meant to find and love?
Yes, you say.
I think I’m still looking for mine, I say, and you do not know just what I am saying when I say this.
Me too, you say, but I think I’m getting close to finding him.
I figure you mean me, I think.
I lean over you and I kiss you and our mouths fit well together, and I hear the way our bodies click together, like puzzle pieces, and you kiss me back, and you reach behind my back and lift the back of my shirt up and begin to take it off of me. I reach for the button on your pants.
We are late picking up our sushi.
What about the roses?, you ask me as I’m getting ready to leave.
I thought I’d leave them here, I say. We can enjoy them together.
No, you say. I bought them for you to take home. I want you to take them home and think about me each time you see them.
But they will die, I say.
Then I will buy you more, you say.
I pick up the vase and clutch it and the roses to my chest. I do not know how to explain the roses to my wife, Holly. The two of us stopped celebrating Valentine’s Day years ago. You know nothing about her. I am trying to ask her for a divorce. I don’t know how to ask her for a divorce. I don’t want to become a part-time father.
The words I love you, D are in my mouth, on the tip of my tongue even, but I do not say them. I can’t. What if you don’t say them back?
Holly is awake when I get home. What are those?, she asks.
Roses, I say.
I know, Will, she says. I am surprised she is awake. It is nearly 2 a.m.
Happy Valentine’s Day, I say, and I put the roses on the kitchen counter. Why are you awake?, I ask.
Avery poked me in the eye. I’m having trouble seeing out of it.
This is not the first time Avery has poked Holly in the eye. He tore her cornea last summer, and she had had to miss three days of work.
I called out for the weekend, she says.
All weekend?, I ask.
Great, I say. I guess I can pick up extra hours at work.
Or you could spend time with your family.
Or I could do that, I say. But I already have a shift scheduled on Sunday.
Of course you do, Holly says.
She uploads a photo of the roses to her Facebook account. From my Valentine, she writes as the caption.
I leave the morning of Valentine’s Day before Holly and Avery wake up so I can finish buying your presents. I told her last night that I would take Avery out for a while in the afternoon so she could sleep. She said she’d appreciate it. You have to work at 3 p.m. I will be able to see you and spend time with Holly.
I stop at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Tremont Street in Boston before I go home to get Avery. I am a lapsed Christian. My family and I were Protestant. The last time I went to a Christian service was with an ex-girlfriend in high school. She and her family were Catholic. For reasons I have not yet told you, I have not been in a church since I went with her and her family in 1995. Before that, I hadn’t been in years. I buy a votive candle. I consider praying to St. Valentine, Patron Saint of Love, but I figure he is busy today.
I offer a prayer instead to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Hope. I believe in patron saints, and the power of the universe. It led me to you and you to me for a reason. I think that reason is because we can be happy together. I am falling in love with you – and if I’m being honest, I already am in love with you – and while Holly and I have not been happy in several years, I cannot see a life without her. No, that’s not true. She and I will always be in each other’s lives. Avery makes that inevitable. What I can’t see is a life where I have to come out every time someone asks me about my life. When I say I’m married, people assume I’m married to a woman. And no one asks if Holly and I had to conceive Avery through in vitro. Me with you means constantly coming out, and then explaining who Avery is. He’s my son. But really, he’s becoming your son. And how do I make your relationship to him permanent? What if Holly fights me for custody? I think her parents would pay for her attorney. They’ve wanted her to move to California for years. I can’t lose my son, even if keeping him means staying in an unhappy marriage.
I can’t wait for St. Jude to answer. You’re expecting Avery and me.
You say you love your presents, though I wonder if you are disappointed. There are no flowers. There is no chocolate. There is nothing remotely romantic about what I have brought. You say again that you love everything. You have gotten a card for Avery. In it, you call him little rabbit.
The three of us eat lunch in your bed, and Avery gets rice in your sheets while we watch a Dr. Seuss cartoon. Avery sits between us. You think his need to be in the middle is funny.
The petals on the roses curl and darken. They drop from their stems and float in the vase you bought me. I take the roses, turn them upside down to dry, and collect the petals. I save these petals, because I save everything you give me. I will show you these petals one day, and I will tell you that even then I knew you were my destination.
Five nights later, we eat dinner and watch a movie and drink a bottle of wine and I am ready to tell you that I love you but I am finding it difficult to say the words out loud. I
It is after 1 a.m. when I tell you I have to go.
Wait, you say. Let me pee. Don’t go until I come back.
While you are in the bathroom, I tear a piece of paper out of a notebook you have on your computer desk, and I write that I love you.
I have fallen in love with six people in my adult life. When I write I love you to you, I think that this will be the last first time I tell someone that I love them. I put the note in my pocket.
You come back, and I tell you I need to pee too. In the bathroom, I hide the note under a towel in your linen closet. I will tell you I have left something for you. I walk back to your bedroom. I can hear you running and jumping into your bed. Inside your room, my bag does not look like how I had left it.
What?, you ask me. You look guilty.
I kiss you, and I grab my bag. I’ll talk to you later, I say.
I had a good night, Will, you say. I wish you could stay.
I do too, D, I say.
Outside, I text you to look in your bathroom. You respond that I should look in my bag. I wait until I get home. I open my bag. Inside is a note: I love you! D. I fold the note in half and put it in my wallet. I want these words in your handwriting with me.
I know why I chose that moment to tell you, but I don’t ask you what in that moment caused you tell me, or if you had known for a while, why you chose to tell me then.
I never told you why Green Card is one of my favorite movies. I’m not even sure I ever said it is one of my favorite movies. Even though Georges and Bronte have fallen in love, it is not enough to keep him from being deported. Their loss made me cry. I had watched the movie with my parents. My father had looked at me and asked me why I was crying, and I had told him that the movie was sad, and he had rolled his eyes, looked at my mother, and had said hormones. I was 13 years old, maybe 14. That was one of the last times I cried in front of someone other than Holly. After more than a dozen years together, of course, I’ve cried in front of her. But not anyone else. That was also the night when I realized that sometimes loving someone isn’t enough. The movie still makes me cry, even though I know how their love story always ends.
One night you tell me I am your one, that I am your it. I tell you that you are my one and my it, too. The three of us, you, me, and Avery. We’re meant for each other. You say you like being a parental figure. You tell me you can’t see your life without me in it. I tell you the same.
We take Avery to the Museum of Science. You and he build shapes out of blocks, and make lightbulbs turn on and off, and I follow behind the two of you, taking pictures for the photo albums I think we’ll create. Avery runs out of the playroom, and we follow. He evades us and runs back into the playroom. We follow him, but the man at the entrance to the playroom asks us to wait in line. While we wait, we lose sight of Avery. You and I are anxious. We find Avery inside the playroom, waiting for us. He wasn’t scared. Later, you confess that you had wanted to punch the man at the door for keeping us away from our son. I tell you I had wanted to do the same.
A few nights later, we see Alice in Wonderland. After, you give me one dozen white roses to prove that we are growing a friendship along with a relationship. Two weeks later, you see the film again, this time with your best friend. You and he are high. You and he had smoked for hours before going, you tell me. Did you see anything different?, I ask. No, you say.
You ask me one night to hang out, but I do not respond because I have asked Holly to go on a family date. She and I are sitting in a booth in a Chinese restaurant. I want Avery to stay in his highchair; she gives in and lets him out. He first sits next to her, then he crawls under the table and sits next to me. He bangs on the table with silverware. He empties the sugar caddy and arranges the different packets by color, which we think is a sign of his growing intelligence, but then he starts to open the different packets, which we do not think is a sign of his growing intelligence.
He crawls under the table again and then he crawls out from under the table and he runs around the restaurant. Holly goes after him. She brings him back to the booth and puts him back in his highchair, and he howls and cries, and Holly and I try to distract him, and finally the only thing that works is letting him drink my iced tea out of a straw. I hold the cup for him, even though he wants to hold it for himself. No, Avery, I say. Let daddy hold it. Otay, daddy, he says. And he drinks the tea and laughs because he knows he is not supposed to be drinking iced tea and he has yet again defeated us.
Do you think we should try again?, Holly asks. I know what she is asking. Trying again means starting the entire in-vitro process over.
I’m not sure, I say. We can barely handle one child.
I think that you can barely handle one child. I do not think you will accept a second child.
Avery needs a sibling, she says. I think he’ll calm down and become easier to parent if he has a friend.
Our food comes, and we start eating.
Why are you hesitating?, she asks. What’s making you question this?
I’m worried that we’ll have another child, and then we’ll move into separate houses and co-parenting two children from two homes seems impossible.
Holly stops eating, and I have lost my appetite, and we ask for our food to be boxed up, and leave. I drive us in the direction of a bookstore on the North Shore of Massachusetts. She doesn’t want to go, but I do not take us home.
How do you know if something is worth saving?, she asks.
I don’t think we are, I say. I can say this to her because you love me and I love you.
We stop talking. We get to the bookstore, where we had used to love going before and after Avery was born, and I ask her if she wants to go inside and she says no.
You don’t think there’s any hope?, she asks me.
I don’t know, I say. I sound defeated. I feel defeated.
How do you know when enough is enough?, she asks.
I don’t know, I say.
Holly tries not to cry. I instinctively want to reach for her and hold her and tell her that everything is going to be OK, but I do not think everything is going to be OK.
Would you still want another child, even if you knew we weren’t going to live together or raise the children under the same roof?, I ask her. Say yes, I think. Tell me that if I agree to trying to have another child, then when I ask you for a divorce, you won’t feel blindsided.
Yes, she says. She doesn’t hesitate.
I look at her. I look at Avery. I look at my phone; you have texted. I turn off my phone without reading what you have written.
We can go ahead and try again, I say, and I drive us home. In less than a year, I think, she and I will be divorced and you and I will be living together, figuring out how co-parenting two children with her will work.
Like the essay? Check out the print issue.
Read more about William here.
Read more about Jessica here.