I own nothing, except for a partially cured obsession.
The room felt vastly empty without him. Bland and again, too quiet. Ephemeral traces of him had remained in the air - shoe polish, the smell of a new leather belt, his good cologne. I seated myself in the armchair - his armchair - with my legs folded beneath me and stared blankly at the walls in a sort of idiotic numbness. No duties, no decisions awaited me. But also no immediate perspective and no certain future.
The minutes dragged and the hours crawled. It wasn't until the shadows of early evening had darkened the room that I stood from that dejected position in the armchair. My legs had become so cramped that I couldn't feel them any more. I went slowly to the window and looked out on Gamla Stan and the waters of Lake Mälaren. It was a beautiful view, the kind you wish you could share with someone dear; the soft glow of the dusk was fading into darkness and the city lights were gleaming in the air and on the water surface as well, stronger with every minute that passed by. It had started to rain.
I was aware of a new kind of anxiety that suddenly impelled me forward, that urged me to get out of there. I needed to do something different, to shake off that strange inertia and apathetic indecision that had been holding me captive in the last hours. Out of the blue, I had the weird sensation that I was late for something indefinite but of crucial importance, and that I could not move fast enough to get there. I dreaded beyond measure the approaching night, whose tenebrous powers would only further deepen my weakness. I felt it, swelling in my throat, the fear of being alone with myself, the fear of the incoming, unmerciful attacks of my own thoughts and emotions.
It was almost five on a Sunday evening. Not too late for a visit.
I took off his shirt and folded it carefully, almost reverently. I unpacked my things in a hurry and dressed mechanically; a pair of jeans, a sweater, my old jacket. I took Angela's coat from the closet and wondered if had been Edward the one who had put it in there. "Of course, stupid. Who else?" Idly, I thought about buying a large bag to protect the soft wool of the coat from the rain.
"The phone...don't forget the phone..."
From the gift shop, I got directions to the bus station. It took a twenty-five minutes long ride on a suburban line to get to Angela's town. The night's bitter cold threatened to change the heavy rain into crystals of ice, a sign that the winter was lurking nearby, unseen yet ominous, waiting to claim its turn.
Angela opened the door with a quiet, serene smile. Moving towards her, I suddenly felt self-conscious, wondering if Edward had spoken to her when he collected my things, if she suspected or knew what had happened between us.
Knowing Edward I doubted, but still, it was unsettling to wonder.
"I've brought back your coat..." I sheepishly explained my impromptu presence.
I should have called. I had a phone now.
She smiled again and waved me further inside.
"Come to the kitchen. There's coffee and chocolate cake. I've been indulging today."
The room was brightly lit and warm and smelled of cinnamon but since yesterday, it had lost that friendly and familiar air of my surrogate home. Not surprisingly, as yesterday felt like an era ago.
"Now that you've met Edward...what do you think of him?"
Angela propped her elbows on the table, the coffee cup cradled in her palms as she sipped the hot liquid.
"Well...he's elegant, handsome, almost frighteningly intelligent, charming, but also he seems to have a huge private core that no one is ever allowed to touch. Essentially elusive. Am I wrong?"
"No. You've read him well..."
I felt tears brimming.
"Did he...you know, ask you questions about me?"
"Not so many really...just the exact day when you arrived, how were you looking, stuff like that. I didn't offer anything voluntarily and I did not develop my answers too much. I told him the little I knew and also that I didn't question you much because I did not want to pry."
Angela always kept to herself and extended the same courtesy of discretion to others. I sipped absently my coffee, my mind a millions miles away.
"Tell me...is he always so exceedingly polite?"
God, I missed him.
"Yeah... He is."
She asked me nothing else. Why hadn't I sent the coat with Edward? Why did I come by bus, hadn't he had a car? How our reunion went? But had she asked, it would have been awkward to justify why I was still in Sweden. By myself.
Perhaps she didn't want to know. Perhaps she didn't care.
"Oh, dear, when did I become so paranoid?"
Angela changed the subject, diverting me with stories about her daughter's ballet lessons and her new infatuation with a movie character. She was speaking slowly, evenly, almost monotonously and in the state I was in, soon it became difficult to actually listen to her words. The soft, flat tone of her voice became distant, muffled, a drone, like a radio playing in another room.
"Angela," I interrupted her abruptly.
"Yes, Bella," she quietly replied, watching me with a careful expression.
"Thank you. For having me here, I mean. For everything you did for me..."
My eyes dropped to my hands, stirring uneasily in my lap.
"You would do no less for me, hun," she said in the same mild tone.
Conversation pretty much died after that, each of us concerned with our own thoughts. I remembered Edward's words. Perhaps indeed it was the time not to bother her anymore. Soon I excused myself, mumbling something about catching the last bus and left.
The ride back to the city lasted forever. I felt numb, dejected and so disoriented, as if the world had been turned upside down. "Maybe it had." But the loneliness I felt most acute of all. Angela's calm, quiet presence had been in the past few weeks more helpful than I'd realized. Now that I was on my own, I felt the earth slipping away from under my feet.
"What am I doing here?"
I was out of place, lost among strangers, riding a bus to nowhere. Like a fugitive tired of his freedom on the run, I, as well, found that I had everywhere to go except the one place where I wanted most to be. I missed the sense of home, of safety and belonging.
It was difficult not to associate the idea of home with him.
I missed him. I missed his odd way of getting dressed in the morning, putting on first the pants, then the shoes and only after the shirt and the rest of his clothes. I missed having coffee together and his witty comments from behind the morning paper that were always making me laugh.
He was gone now and I was left only with a sense of desperate and confused isolation and lonely helplessness.
Insecurity crept back soon after he had left. I doubted everything again. His reassuring words "I'll be back for you" had a new ring to it, now they sounded inside my head like a sick, perverse mockery.
I reminded myself sourly that I was there by my own choice.
I laid my temple against the cool windowpane and let my eyes wonder outside but the veil of darkness was absolute. I ended up staring at the raindrops sliding on the steamy window, stopping, merging with one another, forming bigger drops, their downward path altered by the speed of the bus. I busied my mind attempting to predict their hazardous trajectories, imagining intricate patterns where there weren't any until my sight grew weary.
I moved my gaze and looked around. Cold fluorescent light rained from above, exaggerating figures and sharpening features of the other travelers, anonymous individuals that were swaying in tune with the bus motion as they gripped the support poles. It seemed on a sudden as if I had been forcefully transplanted into a parallel dimension, lacking sense, purpose and physical boundaries, as I knew them. I half-expected that the blue, rigid plastic seats to begin melting, that the humans and the objects to start commingle into grotesque entities and giant giraffes on flimsy legs to appear on the horizon. A surreal nightmare while wide awake.
"I'm losing my marbles..." I whispered to no one.
Anxiety, black and suffocating, swallowed me again in merely seconds. "I'm alone..." Suddenly, I was striving for air, and my heart raced so wildly I could hear its reverberation in my ears. That dry statement echoed along with the thump of my heart at the same peace. "I'm alone..." Unpleasant sweat covered my forehead and I grabbed the back of the seat in front of me to steady myself against a sudden sensation of falling. As if a forceful vortex were threatening to absorb me implacably into emptiness.
I swallowed hard and forced myself to relax. "Take deep breaths..."
I tried to remember what book I had left unfinished on the nightstand at home. What color was the cover? Who wrote it? Was it any good?
The iron claw holding my chest loosened its grip a bit. My palms were uncomfortably damp with nervous perspiration and I wiped them off on my jeans.
Getting off that bus became imperative. I wanted the safe walls of the hotel room around me. The same room that a few hours ago seemed strange and impersonal to me, now held all the virtues of a sanctuary. He had been there, his strong, vital, protecting energy still lingered inside. That was all I had been left with. "Maybe if I put his shirt in a plastic bag, his scent will not dissipate, will not be lost..."
I had enough sense left to realize the immense absurdity of that thought. I pressed my icy fingertips against my temples and the skin there felt boiling hot.
"Perhaps I'm coming down with something...Yeah, that's must be it..." I thought, unable to recognize the signs of the panic attack. "Oh, God, please don't let me go crazy..."
Out at last and the fresh, freezing air made me dizzy. City noises, lights, traffic sounds around were aggressive and disorientating to such an extent, I had to wait a while at the bus stop and look around in confusion in order to find my way back.
I pulled up my jacket hood and headed for the hotel in nervous strides trough that tenacious, belligerent rain that fell like ice thorns on my face. The pavement glittered darkly beneath my feet. I would have run but there was no strength left in me for that. Finally, the bright lobby. The shiny elevator. "So many glitters." The ding of the elevator sounding like a microwave's. The long, dim hallway, endless, simply endless..."Quicker now, quicker!" The cardkey not easy to handle with frozen fingers. Finally inside. "Breathe..."
With frantic haste, I took off the wet jacket and threw myself on the bed. From under the pillow, I pulled out his shirt.
I buried my face in it and wept.
Hours later, I woke up almost in the same position, the tears long since exhausted. As my senses gathered to clarity, I became acutely aware of my wet jeans and the cold sheets beneath me. Sore from that troubled, lethargic sleep I lay very still, trying to remember what I'd been dreaming. Fragments of happy old moments butchered and mingled with fresher, horribly painful ones. Like a broken mirror remade from shards glued together and which, although repaired, can no longer reflect only one perfect clear image, but a multitude of images, all twisted and distorted.
And the pain felt in a dream, I thought...how insidious, impossible to elude... When you are awake, you can voluntarily change your train of thought, whereas asleep, you can do nothing but endure. And when you finally wake, the pain stays and lingers, tormenting you some more.
I could not live with that pain. Not for the rest of my remaining time there.
I willed myself to motion. I staggered to my feet with a heaviness in my limbs and got rid of the sticky clothes. I took a long, hot shower without one single glance in the mirror. I put on a thick, soft white hotel robe and belted it tightly. It felt good.
"See? Small steps...Baby steps..."
Back into the room, I searched for Edward's liquor bottle only to discover that it had been barely touched. "Liar!" I thought, bitterly amused.
I poured myself a little scotch and brought the glass along to bed. I took what should have been his side. I switched on the TV and turned down the volume to background noise. The soft glow coming from the screen was all that lit the room but it was enough to chase some of the shadows away.
I drank the scotch with small sips watching blankly the TV screen. It was pleasantly warming. The taste was not bad either. Of course, from his lips tasted better. I closed my eyes and relived the way he had kissed me the night before, the way he had tasted, the fierce expertise with which he had deepened the kiss.
The memory unsettled me and sent a ripple of desire along my spine. Such a sweet ache.
I was seriously considering calling him.
I wanted to, so badly that my head whirled. But even if he had already landed, he must be tired after a twelve-hour flight and a sleepless night. Exhausted, grumpy, unshaven. Still angry perhaps. He might snap at me and I was afraid and unwilling to take that risk.
"A text...that's different. He'd react better to a text. He can reply in his own time."
I leaned my head back against the pillows and stared at the dark ceiling.
"I must think of something. Not too long, not too short, not too obvious. Something that subtly invites an answer."
A sly smile flourished on my lips. I nearly jumped out of my warm cocoon and felt around the soaked jacket seeking for my brand new cell. No missed calls. I held no defense against the vague sting of disappointment.
"He could not have had time..."
I accessed the hotel's wifi network and searched the net for a particular fragment from a poem I had in mind. An obsolete love poem from a different culture. I added a twist by sending him the strophe in its original language. I wondered how he'd react to that and smiled again.
I snuggled under the covers, clutching the cell phone and tightly embracing his shirt. Still smelled of him, faintly though. Perhaps that plastic bag was not such a bad idea after all.
I pictured him being puzzled, surprised, amused even. The verses swirled in my mind until all that remained was the subtle, quiet pulse of sleep.
"Arald, nu vrei tu fruntea pe sînul meu s-o culci ?
Tu zeu cu ochii negri... o, ce frumosi ochi ai !
Las' sa-ti înlantui gîtul cu parul meu balai,
Viata, tineretea mi-ai prefacut-o-n rai,
Las' sa ma uit în ochii-ti ucizator de dulci."
Morning came and brought along a cold light and more sober expectations. The morning after a tormenting night can be sometimes just as difficult. But in a different, crueler way because, as you're returning to a full and clear consciousness, to awareness and to your most authentic self, you begin to reason things out and by doing that, you question everything, every thought, every feeling, every decision or resolution from the night before. Briefly, even your own existence.
The first thing I did once I opened my eyes was to check the telephone that had remained stubbornly silent all night long. Still nothing. My heart sunk and I felt a frigid, stark disappointment, beyond any reason. I had a disquieting sensation that I had been fooling myself, that the night, with its traitorous lack of definition and clarity, had tricked me into the common delusion of those suffering from lovesickness.
In the brutal morning light, my last night's attempt to communicate with him seemed petty and puerile. I pictured him laughing at the pretentious mannerism, at the sweetish, almost caricatural romanticism of the silly poem. I imagined him feeling an icky, malicious compassion for me and for my totally inept gesture.
"No, he is not like that..."
I ignored the twist of pain and weariness that such a mental image gave me and tried to shake myself out of the unpleasant direction of my thoughts. A tap at the door that sounded loud in the quiet interrupted those morose ruminations. It was too early for the room-cleaning staff.
I opened the door and found myself face to face with a beaming Alice.
She was wearing a fuchsia colored coat, which stopped at her mid-thigh, some strange earrings suspiciously resembling little onions and at her feet was the craziest suitcase ever: a bright pink one with an imprint of giant daisies all over. She looked good. She was fresh and beautiful. Very much like Edward, who managed to remain elegant even in leisure clothes, Alice could wear any combination, no matter how flamboyant and get away with it. No one looking at her would have said that she was extravagant or unstylish. Quite the contrary.
She did not leave me much time to react; she entered quickly, in a clatter of bracelets, and gave me another happy smile that brightened the room.
"Sweetheart, you're okay!"
Reciprocating her smile in a way I hoped it looked welcoming, I stepped closer and received her tight hug. Her exhale of genuine relief was warm and fragrant against my cheek. She smelled like fresh air.
I was surprised and I shouldn't have. I knew he was going to come up with something to keep me supervised. But sending Alice all the way here seemed a bit extreme.
I didn't realize I'd spoken aloud until she planted her hands on her hips and glared in outrage.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
Despite her delicate frame, in that stiff poise, trying to look severe with her hands on her hips, she appeared as if she could stand up against anyone.
"Well...you are here, aren't you?"
She widened her eyes in indignation and made a disbelieving sound.
"Edward didn't force me into anything, Bella. He didn't even ask me to come here. I offered! To keep you company, to make your staying more enjoyable! This is unfair! Is it so hard for you to believe that I came here because I have been missing you and I was dead worried about you?"
She was right. They shared an eerie bond, as if there were no real need for them to actually talk aloud with each other. And if there was anybody able to resist Edward, it was Alice. She did that quite successfully, too. By driving him crazy, I would say.
"Sorry..." I whispered. "Didn't mean to sound insensitive. I'm glad to see you..."
"Why did you disappear like that?"
"If we're having this conversation, I think I'll need some coffee first."
"Fine then." She assessed the room and my - gracious, no doubt - appearance with an uncompromising glance. "You get dressed while I take this - she waved towards her suitcase - into my room. We'll have breakfast downstairs."
"Why don't you stay with me? I mean, we could share this room, there's plenty of space..."
"Thanks, Bella, really, but Jaz and I are used to having really... hmm, long conversations on the telephone. We would be a constant bother to you."
"Phone sex," I thought and blushed instantly. "Of course... you lucky pixie!"
"Okay, then," I agreed wholeheartedly, unwilling for that specific discussion to be furthered.
Half an hour later, we were having a very nice cup of coffee in the restaurant downstairs.
"Well? Are you going to tell me now why did you come here?" she asked again in an impatient and vaguely demanding tone.
"Didn't Edward give you an account of our encounter?"
"He told me some. But we didn't actually meet. Our planes intersected in the air. He only said that you left after receiving – she waved dismissingly - something that led you into believing he was having an affair."
"That about sums it up."
"Whatever the reason Bella, you shouldn't have left like that."
"It seemed like a perfectly sensible idea at the time. I didn't tell anyone where and why I was going because I had no intention of arguing over the matter. My perspective was distorted, my mind was muddied. Everything I believed in was lying shattered on the ground. The anger, the hurt, the numbing shock were overwhelming. Nothing made much sense except for that overpowering need I had to be gone. I was blinded by sorrow..."
She reached for my hand over the table and I seized her hot hand in response.
"You should have called after you arrived here, Bella, you should have at least emailed. I think I've sent you a thousand mails! Why didn't you reply to me?"
"I haven't checked my email since I left home. Silly, I know, but I was afraid...I might receive you know, divorce papers. And I did leave contact information...in a letter to Edward. A letter he never found."
"He mentioned something about that, too. That is a bit of a mystery, but he will get to the bottom of it.
She sighed audibly.
"Anyway, there could not have been a worse moment for all this misunderstanding to happen, for you to disappear. There were problems at the rig, Bella. Big problems. Despite the careful safety practices, there were accidents beyond reckoning, delays, inexplicable glitches, aggravations. People, good employees were hurt. For a while, Edward practically lived on the rig. All the guys did, except for dad."
"He never told me any of this," I whispered, defeated." I wish he did..."
"Dad thought it was better to keep this from mom...and from the rest of us, girls, just to be on the safe side."
"And how come you know so much?"
Alice gave her shoulders a faint shrug and replied quite seriously.
"I've tricked Jasper into telling me. Anyway, Edward now suspects that the problems at the rig and you being deceived by a lie are somehow connected. He thinks that somebody attacks the family, both on professional and personal level."
As I thought of it now, there was something more in Edward's deliberate avoidance of the issue.
"When we couldn't get hold of you, it was I the one who called him and trust me, it wasn't an easy phone call to make... He rented a private plane to get home faster. He was frantic with worry, anguishing over possibilities, desperate for answers... He imagined the worst scenarios, Bella, he thought you had some sort of accident, that you were hurt, dead even! He nearly ripped my head off for not checking up on you!"
Her voice was musical, a chill, angry music.
"I've never seen him so angry before..."
I nodded in acknowledgement, but kept my head down after the last nod. Alice's eyes glittered too accusingly.
"He interviewed your maid, your neighbors, the doorman, even Rose and me like he was the Great Inquisitor or something. For crying out loud, Bella, he yelled at mom!"
I wanted to defend myself, to say that I did not mean for any of that to happen, that I, too had been wounded in that charade but I couldn't. I shut my mouth, ashamed and worried. Alice also kept a sullen silence for a moment.
"And then, mercifully, he got trace of you..."
"How did he find me?"
"Didn't he tell you?"
"Well, at first he didn't want to call your folks, not wanting to scare them. He did, however, want to call the police and the hospitals. But, while he turned the apartment upside down in search for clues, he noticed that your passport was gone. I think at that point, in his despair, he considered using his sensitive contacts to track it down, your passport, I mean, since your credit cards or cell were out of the question. But he imagined you would not have left without letting at least one of your parents know were you could be found. So he went to see Charlie..."
"He went to Forks?"
"Yeah. He said it was better to talk with your dad in person...and I went with him. To soften Charlie, you know... Edward had to admit he knew nothing about you, that you inexplicably left without a word to anyone."
"And what did Charlie say?"
Alice put her fingers in front of her lips, mimicking my dad's moustache and impersonated his voice. Poorly and in a sour-funny way but that still made my chest feel tight.
"What did you do to my little girl, boy, to make her leave like that? However, he did not fried Edward too much; even to your dad it was clear that Edward was sick with worry. He told Edward you had left him a message about a sudden visit to Angela and things should have been easy next. Except they haven't."
"What do you mean? Why?"
"Well, Charlie did not know where your friend was living. Your message only had said 'in Europe'. So next, our little procession, now made of three, went to see Angela's parents. And there we faced some serious challenge! You should have seen us, all three of us, seated in the Webers' living room, hands on the knees, like chastised kindergarten kids, severely scrutinized by a very intransigent Mrs. Weber."
That picture would have been indeed almost funny if it hadn't been for the guilt assailing me.
"And all this because apparently, Angela has some deranged ex-husband and her parents do everything in their power to keep her safe from that jerk. That includes, of course, keeping her current whereabouts a secret. It took a great deal of effort from Edward to persuade them to reveal to us Angela's location. That situation, a husband in search for his wife who had left him without a word, resembled too much with their daughter's own story. They were extremely suspicious. Edward had to use all his magical charm in order to convince them and that says something! Plus, Charlie had to guarantee solemnly for his son's-in-law integrity."
"What did he do after that?"
"Really, haven't you guys talked at all?"
"Not that much. He was kind of...angry with me..."
"Well, under the current circumstances, it is hardly surprising that he is upset..."
"Please Alice, go on."
"He insisted that Mr. and Mrs. Weber be discreet about his inquiries, asked them not to inform Angela; he claimed that between you and him it was just a lover's quarrel, that he only wanted to make sure you were okay. Which of course, they were able to confirm, since Angela had told them over the phone about you and your visit."
"When was this happening?"
"Three weeks ago...maybe a little more."
"I wonder why he didn't come here right away..."
"I can only guess from this point, Bella. After we had returned from Forks, he was constantly in a foul mood. Any attempt to discuss with him only exacerbated that disposition. From the little I managed to pull out from him with my own specific methods - she said that with a grin – I'd say he was waiting for you to return. He gave you the space you apparently needed; otherwise, you would not have left. I suspect, but I'm not sure, that he kept an eye on you from distance, though. Then just like that, at the beginning of last week, he announced us that he was leaving for Sweden."
"Jake..." I thought. "It was then when he had found out about Jake..."
I was on a sudden grateful that Edward hadn't told her anything about Jake. I was not sure of that, of course. I sneaked an embarrassed glance at her.
If she knew, she hid it well.
The saddest smile curved my lips and tightened my throat.
"Knowing all this now makes me feel terrible," I confessed quietly.
"But how could you possibly believe that Edward was capable of cheating on you?"
I looked for a moment through the wall, past the wall, out to forever, and briefly lost myself in recollections of the past.
"He used to call me every day. Then every other day. Then once a week... He became distant, sullen, stressed, and tired but I hoped that, after the tough beginning of every newborn business, his mood would improve. However, as the days turned to weeks and then months and there was no change in his behavior, I suspected that things were not going as smoothly as they were supposed to. In time, I started to truly hate that blasted oil rig."
"Everyone brings home an invisible burden from work at the end of the day, Bella. Surely, you know that... Why should Edward be any different? He is only a man, you know?"
That sweet pain, which I always felt when I thought of him, resurfaced in my heart. "It must have been so hard for him..."
When Alice didn't continue her reprimands, I went on.
"So pretty soon I began thinking that he had married me just because I was malleable, quiet and compliant, someone he could control, push aside when he wanted me out of the way, yet someone who would provide a homey and cozy atmosphere when he did deign to return home."
"Don't be ridiculous, Bella!"
"Yeah, Bella. B like in boring and banal... With that frame of mind, it wasn't at all hard for me to believe the infidelity scenario. And you know what they say about a picture and its worth..."
"You're wrong in your negative self-assessment. Conversely, from my point of view, the opposite is quite true."
She probably noticed my befuddled expression, because she further explained in very definitive manner.
"Social engineering cannot override biology, Bella. We, acting like strong modern women, have fought for years to gain economic and social independence. We have been shouting big-strong-sad-feminist slogans calling for freedom, equal rights and wages with men and we have been demanding autonomy and more power for decades now. Yet the more power we get, the unhappier we become. We consciously devote ourselves to dominating men, yet on a visceral level, we despise men who can be dominated. What we really want is strong men who have the courage to whip out their dicks and show us they've got what it takes to keep us safe. Of course, I don't mean that literally. Although that would not be bad at all," she added with a mischievous little smile.
"Don't belittle yourself for doing what most women - openly admitted or not - crave to do. We long to be protected and nurtured and cared about, but refuse to accept that we are therefore, vulnerable. So we keep denying that we need men stronger than ourselves; men able to surround us, envelop us and protect us from a world that often is harsh and brutal.
You on the other hand, freely chose to submit yourself to such a man. A strong, protective, supportive and ultimately dominant man. That doesn't mean you are, for some reason, weak or unable to stand up for yourself. You are not psychologically flawed nor are you a disgrace to women. It takes trust, spirit and strength to achieve that kind of devotion, the kind that ensures in the long-term a vibrant, connected, evolvable relationship that deeply satisfies both you and your man."
"That was quite a speech..." I observed, smiling, "but isn't it dangerous to generalize like that? I mean, there are obviously some unhealthy variants of the male-led relationship."
"I am not advocating for the kinky stuff, and I don't take lightly the subject of women's oppression, abuse or discrimination either. This is shallower that that... This is about dominant men that turn us on. And if they were respected, encouraged and allowed to be the men they were put on this earth to be, they would be more apt to respect who and what we are as women!"
I gave a little laugh. She was passionate about the subject.
"Since when do you have such traditionalist views on gender roles?"
She tilted her head and smiled at me in a very sweet way.
"I guess there's more to me than the pretty package!"
We looked at each other briefly with silent understanding, in a sort of calm communion of souls. She was as close to me as a sister.
"I am sorry Alice, for not confiding in you... Perhaps all this would not have happened."
"Whatever can be done," she said softly, "can be undone."
"Not always," I said regretfully, under a new assault of doubt and insecurity.
"There is nothing that a little feminine ingenuity can't solve."
Her voice rang vibrant with exuberance.
"I wish I could share your optimism on the matter. You haven't seen him... He was...well, terrible."
There was an edge of laughter in Alice's tone. "Let me guess...no sex, huh?"
She was more perceptive than I wanted to admit. She continued to watch me, making me extremely uncomfortable as her dark gaze remained intent. It was of no use to deny it.
"It wasn't about sex..."
"It is always about sex. Or the lack of it, for the matter. We should pray that things stay forever this way between men and women. When the sexual connection goes awry, a relationship is in danger to slide into a stale, platonic, flat and bored camaraderie. However, this is not the case between you and Edward."
She took hold of my hand once more and her bright gaze held again an undercurrent of mischief.
"If you want peace, prepare yourself for war! You wait till I get you out of this broody mood and have you shining and smiling again!"
She leaned herself over the table and added in a fake-serious voice.
"Trust me – that cocky brother of mine won't even know what hit him!"
I found that I was laughing, as much as the small joke was worth. Alice laughed with me and her laughter was a delight to hear: crystalline, brilliant and free.
"How about we got out of here? Did some shopping, huh?"
She was all but bouncing on her toes and I barely bit back a wail. I had forgotten about her shopping-fuelled lifestyle and inexhaustible reserves of energy.
"What are you, the Duracell bunny? Aren't you tired after your flight?"
"Or we could go back to your room, do some more moping and dissect your love life..."
I heaved an unenthusiastic sigh of surrender.
Satisfied that she had won that exchange, Alice looked pleased with herself.
"Stockholm, beware! Here we come!"
In the evening, when I finally returned to my room, feeling after the full day with Alice like a contestant after a decathlon trial, I found to my sheer delight, a sign from Edward. A sign that allowed my heart to start beating again, allowed me to breathe.
One perfect, majestic calla lily and a note.
"Come, Harold, your sweet brow against my bosom lean;
Thou god with eyes of darkness... how wonderful they shine!
But let me round your neck my golden hair entwine...
My life and youth your presence does in the sky enshrine.
Oh, let me gaze into your eyes of sweet and fatal sheen."(*)
I wanted to call him that instant but refrained again. I despised my cowardice, but I could not defeat it. Not did I try too hard, since he was seemingly responsive to the text messages maneuver. So I began to type my answer, stopping from time to time to admire the beautiful lily.
"Thank you for the magnificent flower. Is this a silent Victorian message?"
The reply came surprisingly quickly.
"Yes. From the same age as your poem."
Calla lily – the symbol of purity, holiness and faith, also carried at times a very personal and overtly sensual connotation.
"From all its meanings, which one should I choose?"
"Is it pink? I asked for pink."
Pink it was.
"That says it all then."
"Ever so elusive..." I thought to myself, "Let's play around a bit, shall we?"
I typed my response, smiling wickedly.
"I take it that this is a message of lustful ardor then."
"You should know better than to ask, but yes, it is."
"But what interpretation should I give to the huge, heavy pistil springing from the lily's center? What if I get its significance wrong?"
"Isabella, I'm in a meeting and this conversation makes me feel uncomfortably...tight. Go to sleep now like a good girl and dream of me."
I did exactly that. With a blissful smile on my lips, too.
The next couple of days passed in a blur. Alice and I explored the city on foot, went sightseeing and of course, shopping. Alice, under the pretext that we should exploit our staying to the maximum, dragged me into every possible shop. We had been in so many stores and boutiques that I couldn't keep straight just where we had bought what, but that didn't really matter. What mattered was that we had fun, that Alice was pleased and that I was too tired at the end of the day to let my mind wander into dangerous places. The single apparent problem was the steadily growing mound of bags and packages that were gathering in our rooms.
On the third day since Alice's arrival, I went to her room to take her to breakfast. When she did not answer the door, I entered and saw her sitting cross-legged on the bed. She was whispering into the telephone, shooting glances in my direction. Her tone sounded increasingly worried. She soon hung up and I quickly asked.
"Are there any news?"
Alice gave a quick shake of her head. "Nothing conclusive yet. I know they're working on it."
She was avoiding my look and she wasn't going to give me any details, I could tell.
"Was that Edward?"
"Yes, he was."
"What did he say? Why didn't you put me on?"
"He said he'll you call himself in the morning. In his morning. It must be midnight in Seattle now."
I wondered what was it that needed to be kept from me. Again.
I pushed her.
"I wish you didn't do that..."
"Treat me like that. Keeping me in the dark. I am not a mindless child who needs to be told fairy tales. I find that demeaning."
"I really don't know anything, Bella. It was Edward I spoke with, not Jasper, remember? He dropped only a hint from which I drew the conclusion that he didn't trust the telephone lines from the office."
"Why did he call then?"
"It was I who called him. I needed to know how things are."
"At the office at midnight?"
"Ugh, Bella, put your sword back, will you? I'm not the enemy here. I tried first his cell, then your home number and finally his direct office line. He was having a talk with dad and the guys. And a nightcap, I suspect."
"I'm sorry. I guess I was just jealous of you for speaking with him."
"Why don't you call him yourself?"
"I can't. It has to be him."
Alice looked at me a little bemused.
"If I were the first one to call after our tumultuous meeting, that would be simply...well, lame."
Of course, text messages were inherently excluded from the 'lame' category.
Alice laughed in response. "That is not exactly an iron logic, but I guess I can relate to it."
"Is it that serious, you think? I mean...telephone tapping?"
Alice stood up from the bed and strode about the room.
"No, Bella, I think Edward just wants to play safe, that's all. He didn't sound too concerned. Anyway, you should know that I am leaving tomorrow."
She paced back and forth, passing by me repeatedly as she began to prepare her – many now - suitcases.
This felt like déjà -vu. Another one leaving. Leaving me here.
"Why?" I asked dryly.
"Your lord and master will come soon, there's no need for me to stay here with you any longer. Besides, I miss mine like crazy..."
"Has he told you that he is coming?"
"No. I just know it. That's why I called him in the first place. I have a sense that all this is going to end soon. And because this is our last day together here, let's spoil ourselves! My treat!"
"What do you have in mind?" I asked, a bit detached.
She turned to look at me on her way into the bathroom and mouthed the word. "Spa." Then grinned hugely.
While I was preparing for bed that night, I reflected amused on the variety of masochistic procedures through which a woman pushes herself in the name of beauty. For a good part of the day, my body had been brushed, peeled, scrubbed, massaged and waxed and that was not even bad compared to other, more radical, methods. My limbs seemed made of cotton and I could barely keep my eyes open.
It was a pleasant exhaustion, though. The second best kind.
Just as I was drifting off to sleep, my precious new cell phone finally rang. I gave a start but let it ring for a couple more times before I answered.
"Yes," I said quietly, in a fake composure, as though that were just another ordinary phone conversation.
"Good evening...Isabella." He paused before speaking my name in that infectious, rich tone of his, which instantly made me faint with longing.
"Good evening, Edward. Or should I say Clark Kent?"
"Well, Alice's presence here obviously turns you into the superman you mentioned in our last hm, discussion."
"I had to make sure you won't indulge yourself with any more imprudent activities."
"Unlike shopping till you drop from your feet?"
"That is harmless enough."
"Not if you fatally succumbed to it."
"Sorry," he laughed. "Can't help you there. That's Alice's form of penalty, not mine."
"How about yours?" I asked, tentatively.
"I haven't decided yet. But I'm still upset with you. How is Mr. Black, by the way?"
"Well, he's in the bathroom right now, but he's sending his regards."
Wow. I was getting brave enough to tease him.
There was a pause before he answered, his voice full of silky, lazy menace.
"You like playing with the fire, don't you, little girl?"
"What if I do?"
"Then perhaps it is time I took you by surprise again with another one of my superhero gadgets..."
His authoritative nature was so sexy in its arrogance that sometimes I truly wished I could find a defense against it. Now was not one of those moments, though; I purely savored the little shivers of illicit pleasure so effortlessly triggered by his voice.
"You should know that leaving me here was punishment enough... Perhaps more than you think."
"I'm sorry, but I still think it was best that way."
I wanted his rich, bone-melting voice to reassure me, to caress me with whispering sweet nothings.
"How is home?"
"Not the same without you. Everything is in its place, ready for my use, but there is something unpleasantly austere about all that stillness. You are the heart and soul of our home, Isabella."
I flushed with warm pleasure. The brief praise felt like balm to my lacerated emotions and simply listening to his voice was unutterably soothing.
"I would love to be there with you." I confessed quietly, with aching tenderness.
"I've called your parents."
He might just as well have thrown a bucket of ice-cold water over my head.
"I've told them you're fine, that we're fine, but that you decided to stay a bit longer to help Ms. Weber through some rough time."
He made a pause then added coolly in a very calm statement.
"I lied to them."
"I see... Thank you."
"You should call them too. I did my best to reassure them but it is not the same with hearing from you directly. Charlie did not buy my story for one second."
My voice wavered.
"I will call them."
You could count on him always to be the responsible one. Nothing like me.
A few seconds of silence passed; I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.
When he spoke again, his voice dropped a few tones.
"Your notebook made an interesting lecture."
I blushed violently again. A gasp broke from my lips and I was momentarily lost for words. He had my notebook. Of course, he must have found it when he had retrieved my stuff from Angela's. And kept it. I was deeply embarrassed, since, beside the various expressions of my pain, it also contained written embodiments of my need for him. My physical need. My desire for him. Very graphic fantasies. Brazen. Uncensored.
"What I have been writing in there...that's very personal, Edward. You shouldn't have..."
"Between spouses there must be no secrets, love..." he interrupted, a bit sternly. "I found it very useful since it provided me access to your innermost thoughts. Now I have a different understanding of the subtleties of your mind."
I kept silent, still mortified.
"I'll be a better husband; that I can promise."
"You are that already..."
"And I have every intention to fulfill your other...deep seated needs. Your fantasies are amazingly intense, love. I think a fast reinstatement of my marital rights is required or soon enough I'll go insane."
I blushed from pleasure this time. My pulse quickened.
"Edward," I breathed.
He had caught the small inflection in my voice. So, he brought me down to earth.
"You must allow me a couple more days to finish solving things up here, then I'll come for you."
"How is that going? Have you discovered who's got the letter?"
"I am not quite done with that yet but I have some suspicions."
"Will you tell me about it? About what's been going on?"
"We'll talk about it sometime, when all the dust is settled."
I wanted to go home so badly. If it were up to me, I would have got on the first plane.
"Are you sure about coming here? I mean, I could return with Alice if you don't want me traveling by myself..." My plea came out flavored with a hint of despair. "She's leaving in the morning, you know... Perhaps we could find..."
"Quite sure. There are still some loose ends there that need to be tied up. Will you be alright for a few more days?"
"A man of brains should never repeat himself but I cannot help it. Therefore, I must ask. Will you behave?"
"Will you keep in mind that it will be I and no one else who give pleasure to the woman I love?"
"You needed to hear me saying that, didn't you?"
I knew what he meant but still asked just to make him say it.
"That I love you."
"Yes." I paused. "Very much so."
"Any fool can say the words. I prefer to demonstrate them to you instead. I'm anxious to bring you home and everything to get back to normal."
"OK, then. I let you to your sleep. I know it's late on your side of the world."
There was a subtle sensuality in the way he formed my name, almost as if he were tasting it. I was thrilled to hear the affectionate version of my name from him after so long.
"I do love you."
When I woke up next morning, a new text from him awaited me.
"I've found your letter."
Thank you kindly for reading.
(*)The English translation made by Corneliu M.