The house echoed. A boy who looked just a year or two older than Lilly came out of the hallway. He’d gotten his Mom’s good looks. And, James hoped, something good from his father too.
“She’s downstairs, Dad,” said the boy.
James saw her anger in his eyes. And even then, a rush of love for this boy he’d never known flooded his heart. James pulled Jimmy into a hug. Over and over again James whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“I mean it, Jimmy. I’m sorry.”
“We can go some other time. It’s all right,” said Jimmy.
James bent to be eye-to-eye with his son. “It’s not all right, Jimmy,” James said. “That man is in the past. I won’t go back to him. Never again.”
“Uhhh, Okay, Dad.” His tone was no longer guarded.
“Now, where’s your mom?”
Jimmy pointed to the basement door.
James nodded. He took a deep breath and stepped to the door. He winked at Jimmy and said, “Wish me luck.”
Cassy had drawn the window shades, and the basement was dark. Even the paltry window-well light could not shine through. She sat in a desk chair, staring at a computer screen. Her arms were strewn across the chair like yesterday’s garments. She slouched to one side. She’d twisted her hair into the loose bun he’d always seen it in, but she’d done it days ago. Little strands flew loose like rocket ships escaping orbit, like plans meeting reality like the rope binding a marriage together unraveling.
Her tears had long since dried.
James stopped a few feet from her and fell to his knees.
“Ronnie will be here soon,” she said.
“You called the cops on me?”
“No, he was taking Jimmy to the park, but I’m sure he’d be more than happy to stop by the precinct for you.”
“How kind.” He kicked himself as soon as he said it.
Moments ticked away.
She said nothing.
She did nothing.
He stared at the back of her head until he couldn’t bear to be apart from her any longer. He rose to go to her, but stopped himself. She did not, could not, feel the same way.
“Do you remember what I studied in grad school?”
“How could I forget?” she said. “All you talk about is Fowler’s prize.”
James winced at his past self, at the monster he had been. The monster who in so many ways he still was. He willed himself to step forward, a step away from the past. “I never loved you.”
She turned to him.
“Not the way you deserved,” he continued. “For so many years you were a means to an end. I never wanted to believe that was true. I never wanted to admit it might be. It started with your numerical prowess. Your simplest mathematical thoughts were light years beyond what I could ever hope to attain. I really did wish to estimate your curves, but that too was a means to an end.
“When we married, you took second seat to my chase for significance. You stood by me through years of disgrace and impotent rage, and yet I used you there too, to comfort my ego, to buoy me from one dark wave to the next. You gave me a child. You thought I might return your love, but I poured that into the child, into a part of you that wasn’t you. I sought worth in finding love, and I wasn’t afraid to step on you to get it. I cheated on you with a mistress you could never compare to, not because of anything you lacked, but because no one who is possible can compare to one who is impossible.
“Whether it was in the life you remember of me or in the life I remember of you, this is the truth: The facts are different. The circumstances are different. But the outcome is the same. I do not deserve your love. I never have, and I never will. I cannot ask for forgiveness, though I know you’ve given it a million times over. I can only say that in this moment I see the monster in my soul, the one who has hurt you and punished you for the pleasure of it, and… I don’t want to be that man, that monster, anymore.
“From this day forward I will love you. Whether you have me back or not, whether you forgive me or not, whether you even acknowledge me or not, I will give my love, my service, my heart to none but you.”
He bowed his head and knelt once more before her.
“Speeches will not bridge the gap between us,” she said.
“Then I will build a bridge brick by stubborn brick.”
“Bricks are a terrible material for bridges,” she said.
James heart stopped beating.
And then she smiled. There would be many days of hard work ahead, but in that instant the sun burned through the storm clouds and daylight broke upon his dark and monstrous soul.
Lilly swam towards the light. She reached toward it.
“…coming out Nuchal,” the nurse said.
“Breathe, Cassy, just breath,” James said. “You’ve done this before.”
“Just one more,” the doctor said.
“My, my,” said the doctor. “It’s a girl.”