Long chapter ahead! I decided not to split it because, well, there wasn't a good place to, lol. Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. I'll update again on 5/8 (edit: sorry, I previously wrote 5/3 but that's just not gonna work now, don't hate meeee! chapter 61 is another long one though!)


60
- clarity -

Edward

Unlike our first appointment, Bella and I sit on the couch together at couples therapy.

"Welcome back." Angela smiles at us. "You should be proud of yourselves for being dedicated to this process."

Bella and I exchange a glance. Reaching for her hand, I hold it tight.

"Where should we begin today?" Angela asks. "Or if you don't have a preference, I can start."

"Um…" My knee bounces and I clear my throat. "There is some stuff we want to address, but we can ease into it," I say, then look at Bella. "Unless you wanted to start or whatever?"

"I'm good with easing into it," she agrees.

Our therapist nods. "Okay. I wanted to start with what you each hope to achieve from couples therapy. I'd like you both to share while looking at each other, as this is more for your knowledge than mine."

I think about her question and lock eyes with Bella. She looks hopeful and a little sad. It's the same expression we've both had over the last few days, and I feel like shit because I know I've been distant with her since she told me Levi reached out.

"Who would like to share their goal first?" Angela asks.

With our eyes still locked, Bella says, "Well, if you'd asked me this during our first appointment, I would've said my goal was for us not to get divorced. But a couple of days before Christmas, we called it off. And Edward moved in with me last week."

Angela makes a little hum and my eyes shift to her, reading into it.

"Those are big steps," she remarks.

"Too big?" I ask. "Like, too fast?"

"I can't speak on behalf of either of you. I trust you both had conversations about these decisions. And they're steps in the right direction if staying together is something you both want to work toward." Her eyes lock on me. "How do you feel about those decisions?"

"I never wanted a divorce or to live separately, so of course I'm happy," I say, squeezing Bella's hand. "But calling off the divorce doesn't mean we're done with the hard shit. If anything it's felt more difficult recently."

I worry how Bella's going to take that. I can feel her eyes on me and I stare at the bookshelf behind Angela.

"More difficult, how?" Angela questions.

I think about it for what feels like too long, the room too fucking silent.

"There's some pressure there," I finally say.

Angela nods. "What kind of pressure?"

"We've been trying hard to get it right. But sometimes I don't say or do the right things."

"In your eyes or Bella's?" Angela probes.

"In my eyes."

"And what constitutes saying and doing the right things?"

"I don't know. I still get pissed when certain shit comes up. Like that guy she was with," I mutter.

"You're allowed to feel hurt. But do you feel like you can't control your anger?"

I shake my head and say, "No, it's not like that. At least, I don't think so." I look to Bella for confirmation.

"It's not like that. I'm not ever scared of him," Bella insists. "And I don't expect you to say or do the right things. I just want us to be honest, and I think we've done that so far even when it's made things worse."

Angela watches us and waits patiently before saying, "So, what would you say your goal is for being here, Edward?"

I exhale a long breath and sink lower into the couch before looking over at my wife and holding her gaze. "I don't know. Um… trust is a big thing that we need to work on. For both of us."

"That's an attainable and realistic goal." Angela looks at Bella now. "And what would you say your goal is now since your original one was achieved?"

"I mean, yeah, trust is always something we need to work on," she agrees. "I also just want us to be able to communicate. I don't want every issue going forward to be a blowup fight, but if certain difficult topics turn into that, I don't want that to derail us, either."

"Coming to therapy is a good start, but doing weekly check-ins with each other about your marriage would be beneficial. Like how you're feeling, and if anything needs to change," Angela offers. "Also, when things do get heated, taking breaks would be helpful. Stepping away from the conversation for ten minutes before returning can help keep things from escalating."

"I think that seems like easy stuff we can start doing. Right?" Bella asks, looking at me.

"Yeah."

Angela watches us then says, "I feel a disconnect. Edward?"

"I mean…" I exhale an awkward laugh. "Therapy isn't easy. Spilling all of our shit to a stranger. I'm still getting used to it."

"I understand. But you're here because you want to be, not because anyone is forcing you," she says evenly. "Let's allow you two to guide this right now. Has anything come up since our last appointment that you two want to explore?"

Bella looks at me again and I just shrug, leaving it up to her.

"Since our first session, some difficult topics have come up. One of them is… sex," she mumbles.

"Sex is a sensitive topic and it needs to be treated carefully," Angela says simply. "My first question is, are you both on the same page with how you want to handle intimacy, whether it's jumping back in or waiting?"

"Yes," Bella says and I nod.

Angela offers a small smile. "Good. That already makes things easier. I know talking about sex is weird. It can be uncomfortable and awkward but also really healing. I promise you both this is a safe space and I won't judge."

"Yeah, talking about it is uncomfortable, but connecting like that has never been awkward for us. I mean, the second time we ever met we…" Bella trails off, her cheeks burning.

I think of that night after Allie's wedding, in my hotel.

Bella's right. It was never uncomfortable or awkward between us when it came to sex. We were always so fucking natural that way.

"I was hooked on Bella from the very beginning," I say without thinking, my honest thoughts finding their way into the room.

"Tell us more about that," Angela encourages.

"I mean, I don't know how to describe it. It was just her. End of story. We met, and I was hyperfocused. She was just…" I shake my head, breathing out a low, tortured laugh. "I hired her for headshots, and she caught me off guard. I hadn't seen her beforehand and I didn't expect her to look like… that."

I remember that moment well, standing outside the Ace Hotel, waiting for her.

I knew it was her as she approached me because of course, it was. Of course, I'd be screwed like that. Tempted and teased by a short, slender brunette. Her hair was twisted back and wavy pieces were falling out, framing her face.

She was more than beautiful.

She was cute, too. Naturally attractive.

Wide eyes, pink lips, pretty smile.

"We met and my brain was immediately fucked. There I was, meeting this attractive woman at a hotel and all I wanted to do was ask her out so I could get to know her but—"

"You had a girlfriend," Bella finishes for me.

"Minor detail," I say, amused. "I hadn't been seeing her long, and the next day I ended it because I couldn't get Bella off my mind. But yeah. I tried to be a gentleman during the shoot, but I was too obvious with my attraction. I feel like I stared at you a lot."

"You did, and it was flattering. I stared at you, too, but I had the excuse of taking your photo." Bella laughs a little, reminiscing.

"So it was an attraction at first sight," Angela summarizes, but it's so much more than that.

Bella clarifies before I can.

"It was attraction, sure, but also the feeling of home. In a person," she says wistfully. "In a stranger, which is so crazy to say aloud, but yeah."

"We talked the entire shoot," I add. "I felt at ease around her. It didn't feel like she was there to work. It felt like…"

"What?" Bella pushes, her soft voice pulling me out of the memory.

"Like fate. Fucking soulmates. I don't know. It sounds stupid, maybe. Overly romantic."

"It's not stupid," Bella whispers. "I love our story."

I hold her gaze and a moment passes between us.

I see the broken girl I fell hard for.

The woman I'm still in love with.

The mother of my baby.

"And now we're… here…" she says, her expression faltering, like insecurity creeps in.

"But the love is still present, and more importantly, so is the foundation," Angela reminds us. "The structure is rocky, sure, but even if it's knocked down it can be rebuilt into something stronger. Sturdier. More trustworthy."

It's the first thing Angela's said all session that's given me some hope.

"I like that analogy," Bella says, smiling a little.

"So, let's do that. Find where there are weaknesses and fix them. What are your worries, if any, about being intimate again?" Angela asks straightforwardly, which I appreciate.

Bella waits for me to speak.

"I… I guess I'm worried I'll always think about the guy she last slept with," I confess, refusing to say his name. "Or worse, I'm worried she'll always think of him."

Angela offers a sympathetic smile. "That's understandable. Your thoughts will likely go there, unfortunately. But just because you think about it once doesn't mean it will happen every time. So using the word always is a bit extreme."

I nod. "Just to be transparent, we haven't had sex yet but we have… done other stuff."

"How was that?" Angela asks us.

I'm unsure what she wants to know, and I'm not about to tell her how we both got off in the shower. So I stall, feeling like a fucking awkward, pubescent teenager trying to talk about sex.

"It was natural," Bella answers. "Which is what I love about us. We didn't set a time or date, it just happened. On the other hand, I feel like we should've talked about it more before and after, but we didn't."

Angela hums. "Why not?"

"I was scared, I guess," Bella mumbles.

"Why?"

Bella stays quiet, so I speak up this time.

"Because she thought about the other guy," I say, jaw tightening.

Angela stays stoic. "Did she tell you that?"

"No, not right then, but I saw it all over her face. Like she was caught or something."

Bella glares at me like I just threw her under the bus.

"You asked me to say your name and it was written all over your face why you wanted to hear that. Because you were thinking of me and him. So naturally, my head went there. That's why," she clarifies, sounding both irritated and apologetic.

"And what happened at that moment?" Angela asks. "After you both assumed where each other's thoughts went."

"Nothing. Neither of us acknowledged it, but I did tell him we could stop," Bella recalls. "But we didn't, and I wonder now if that was the best idea."

"When did you confirm that the other man crossed your mind?" Angela wonders.

"Later that night, when we were arguing. He accused me of… getting off to him, and again, it wasn't like that at all," Bella says earnestly. "I'm not sure he believes me. But I'm willing to do whatever we need to move past this."

"I believe you, and I want to move on from this shit," I agree, sounding agitated. "I just don't know how to."

Angela stays quiet for a moment, thinking.

"It's important to lean into difficult conversations. Whenever you two are intimate, tell her about your insecurities. Right then, in the moment. Don't let this thing stew the entire day between you two."

"Yeah, but I didn't want to fight," I admit. "I didn't want to be mad at her."

"A difficult conversation doesn't have to be a fight. I'm sorry to break it to you, but neither of you can read minds," Angela says with a wry smile. "So you need to talk this out. Acknowledge the awkwardness. It could make things worse before they get better but that's okay. Otherwise, you're both engaging in this vulnerable act without being honest and it could be more damaging. Silence can lead to resentment, which is something you're both working toward letting go of."

"Yeah, we're already communicating better than we were before but it's still scary," Bella tells her.

"The more you both practice open communication the less scary it will be." Angela rubs her hands together. "I want to shift back to you for a second, Bella. Do you have similar worries about being intimate with Edward? About thinking of the woman he was with during your split."

"I don't know," Bella sighs. "I never had the chance to worry about the other woman he slept with because I didn't know about her at all. And I told Edward that—he's getting to set this boundary now and ease back into intimacy with me, but I didn't get that option with him when we slept together at the end of August."

"I'm sorry," I whisper, my frustration fading into guilt as I rub my thumb over hers. "I know that was unfair. I know it was fucking awful, and I regret it. Especially now being in this position."

"I already said I forgave you," Bella murmurs. "And I do. But sometimes I wonder if I just… expedited that process. Like I wanted so badly to move on so you would, too."

"Your timelines are going to be different," Angela reminds us. "You're both at different points in this journey."

"I know," Bella agrees. "So, yeah, when we eventually do have sex again, I'm not sure where my mind will go. I want to say I won't have an issue, but I just won't know until it happens."

"Intimacy after a separation needs to be an ongoing conversation with many check-ins," Angela says. "It might sound like overkill but it's safer that way."

"So, there's no stopping shitty thoughts from happening," I clarify, my palm going clammy against Bella's. "We just have to deal?"

"Intrusive thoughts are hard to tame but there are things you can remind yourself of. You and Bella have called off the divorce. You're working on a better future. The event happened once, and she was honest about it. She's here, she loves you, and she is willing to move forward. You're on your way to having a family," Angela lists off.

"I get all of that. It's just difficult because… the guy she slept with reached out to her the same day we were intimate in the shower," I reluctantly recall. "The timing was shitty."

"Did Bella share this with you or did you find out yourself?" Angela asks.

"Bella told me he reached out."

"That shows she wants you to trust her, and she trusted you in return to handle hearing it. That's a good thing," Angela insists. "Despite how it might make you feel."

"I feel like an idiot for letting something so small affect me," I say honestly. "But then sometimes it doesn't feel that small."

"How did you react to hearing it?" Angela asks.

"I pulled back from her. I got pissed at her when she told me, and we haven't talked about it since. She tried to talk about it the next morning before our flight on New Year's Eve, but I couldn't. I wanted to wait until we were here because I was scared I'd say the wrong thing."

"I didn't push him on it, but I feel like we should be able to talk without you present," Bella tells Angela. "I don't want every fight or issue to be paused until we can come to therapy. That limbo doesn't feel fair to me."

Angela hums. "How does hearing that make you feel, Edward?"

"I guess my first thought is I had an entire year of being in limbo. So."

"Meaning what?" Angela asks.

"Meaning he thinks I'm not allowed to feel this way because I ghosted him for four months," Bella answers flatly, pulling her hand from mine. "And I know I shouldn't answer for him. Sorry."

"She's right. That's exactly what it means," I say as Bella crosses her arms over her chest. "After we fought about Levi, I was still there. I didn't leave you. I've still slept beside you for the last four nights. Just because I didn't want to talk about it right then didn't mean you were in limbo. So that doesn't make sense to me."

"And you have no idea how happy it makes me that we were able to still be around each other," she agrees. "But it hasn't been normal. Limbo doesn't have to be physical distance. Denver started rocky but ended on a good note. But since we've been back home, you're giving me whiplash. It's been tense and weird sometimes. Like you're with me but you're not present."

"Because my head is in a fuckin' hotel room in Mexico," I blurt, anger rising. "I'm imagining a guy I've never met seducing you. Thinking about what he said. If you laughed. If you liked him. If you wanted more. That's why it's been tense and weird, Bella. And I didn't want to say the wrong thing to you and make you leave again. So I had to pull back."

Her eyes fill with tears. "I get it. I felt all of that after you lied about Kim. My head filled in all the worst blanks and I couldn't deal with it," she stresses. "I'll tell you anything you want to know about that night, Edward. But whatever you're thinking is probably worse than what happened."

"I want to know but I don't. That's why I just…" I exhale a frustrated growl.

"I know it's difficult but my advice would be don't hold back," Angela suggests. "I think it might do more harm than good at this point. That distance won't help either of you, even if it feels easier."

I scrub a hand over my mouth. "Yeah. I get it. I'll try."

"Then try right now," Bella urges. "You pushed this off until therapy. Well, we're here now. So please talk. Tell me what you wanted to say that night we fought about Levi so we can finish that conversation and move on."

"I mean… it's nothing new, though. I already told you that your sleeping with him felt worse to me than what I did. And I get I shouldn't compare, and I feel fucking awful for thinking it, especially after what I did, too. I'm not trying to convince you to agree with me, I'm just telling you my thoughts. I'm still working through it. And I feel like…" I pause, knee bouncing.

"What?" Bella whispers.

"I don't know. Less of a man or some shit," I admit. "Like being in my head about all of this."

"You're not less of a man," Bella disagrees. "I don't believe that, and you shouldn't either."

"What else am I supposed to think? I want to fucking move on but can't," I mutter. "And I know you got some newfound fucking clarity from being with him—like how I could still love you despite having sex with someone else—but it kind of feels like that clarity came at my expense. That's what I don't think I'll ever get."

"What do you mean it came at your expense?" Angela asks, and Bella reaches for a tissue, dabbing her eyes.

"I don't know," I mutter, feeling like an ass. "I'm not trying to sound insensitive or make you cry, Bell."

"You're being brave to share, so I encourage you to keep going if you feel comfortable," Angela suggests, and I look at Bella who nods in agreement.

"Okay… I… get why you needed space from me to heal. I understand all of the shit with your parents and how it affected you and bled into our marriage. I can empathize with knowing your insecurities now. And I even told you I felt guilty for not seeing your pain sooner," I list off. "But am I not allowed to be hurt and pissed over Levi? Because in my opinion, your family stuff and our issues are separate from what you did with him."

"Let's sit with that statement," Angela says. After a brief pause, she asks, "Why do your marital issues and Bella's family dynamic have to tie into Levi?"

"I'm not sure. You tell me," I challenge because I have no clue and I'm getting antsy.

"Okay. Why did you sleep with Kim?" Angela asks.

I'm nervous but say, "It was after Bella filed for divorce. I guess in a way, it was to hurt her."

"But you were never going to tell her, correct? So how would that hurt Bella if she were never supposed to know?"

I shrug. "The logic isn't there. Maybe I wanted to hurt myself too. Maybe I wanted to… I don't know." I pause, working it out in my head. "Maybe in a fucked up way I needed to create a real reason for Bella to have left me because her leaving after Maria didn't add up."

"You don't think you did anything wrong by sleeping with the woman Bella asked you to be with," Angela states. "So afterward, you experienced self-sabotage, perhaps. Even if Bella had never known about Kim, you would have that inner turmoil. You would have a reason to try harder to fix your marriage."

"It sounds so fucked up," I mutter, feeling Bella's stare. "But yeah."

"That makes sense." Bella sniffles. "I hate it, but it does."

Angela's eyes shift to Bella. "And why did you sleep with Levi?"

"I don't know. I guess I wanted a night off from being stuck in my head," she sighs, and when my gaze turns to her she refuses to look at me. "I'd been so sad, but when I was there, I guess it was freeing in a way because no one knew me. I wanted to have fun and I knew it'd lead to nothing."

"So Edward wasn't on your mind," Angela clarifies.

Bella tucks her hands between her knees. "No."

"What I'm hearing is that Bella made her decision outside of you," Angela says to me. "You weren't a factor in her choice. And your decision to sleep with Kim had everything to do with her. More simply: she did it to feel better, and you did it to feel worse. That might be why it's so difficult for you to move past it."

She's right. I know she is. Everything in my head is like click, click, click. But that doesn't mean I know what to do with this revelation.

"So, what do I do?" I ask, sounding desperate and lost.

"You explore it. Work through it. Acknowledge you both made decisions that led you here. Neither was better or worse. You find ways, with Bella, to feel less betrayed."

"Betrayed seems like a strong word," I say, frowning.

"What word would you use to describe how you're feeling?"

"I don't know. Like… I feel like a fucking casualty in all of this."

"You feel like you were badly affected by this situation," Angela summarizes.

I sniff. "Yeah."

"How does hearing that make you feel, Bella?"

I look over at her and she wipes her cheeks, her tears more furious now.

"Awful," she chokes out. "But I also feel angry."

Angela nods. "Over which part?"

"I feel like he still views stuff so black and white. He's like, keeping score. I used to think that way, too, and seeing it happen with him now just makes me realize how pointless it was." She sniffles again. "When I found out about Kim, he kept saying he was also hurting and I didn't understand that. Because he didn't know what it felt like to be betrayed, not when it came to fidelity. And in a way, I was convinced if I slept with someone else it wouldn't break him like me. I thought he could take it. Like he was built differently."

"What do you mean built differently?" I ask.

"Like, raised normally. Loving family, stable home. I convinced myself it wouldn't tear you apart the way it did me. But it did. Look at us. I feel like we don't have a chance to make this work because how can we? I don't know. It feels less and less likely. It feels like he'll always look at me differently even though we did the same thing."

"Fuck, Bella. Don't say that," I stress, my chest tight. "We do have a chance. Why the fuck else are we here?"

"I can't want this more than either of you," Angela says gently. "But you both have valid reasons to feel hurt. Despite that, do you want this to work?"

We're silent.

"I do," I mumble. "I wouldn't be here right now if I didn't."

"Me too," Bella whispers. "It's all I want. I'm just scared."

"Okay. Well, during our last appointment and even today, Bella said she'd forgiven you. And you just admitted you want to move on, too. So what will help you work through this, Edward?"

"I don't know. I don't have the answer. I don't know why I can't get over it. Maybe because not that much time has passed. Or maybe it's because the woman I slept with never made contact with me, so it was clear on both of our parts that it was a one-time thing. I know Bella said it was nothing, but if this guy is contacting her now… maybe they had a real connection? And that would fucking break me. She deleted his messages without reading them, so we don't even know what the fuck he wanted. It's all of the not knowing that makes me feel just… stuck."

"What this boils down to is trust. And we can all agree that's something you're both still working on," Angela says evenly.

A weighted silence fills the room.

"I know we're both dealing with shame and guilt. I know it's hard for both of us to get over being with another person. What we did doesn't make sense because… it's us. It's been us since day one," Bella says, her voice small. "Neither of us ever had long-term, serious relationships before we got together. So I guess part of me thinks that the reason why this is so difficult for you is because you're not used to being jealous."

I scoff. "That's not true," I counter, thinking of the photographer who used to work with her. "What about Peter?"

"Okay, sure, Peter. But that's exactly what I mean. Before the whole Maria thing—before I left you—you were not a jealous man. Protective, but not possessive. You were confident in us. You trusted me. Whenever we'd go out, you weren't watching my every move if a man approached me. You weren't mad if someone hit on me. Because you knew I was yours. There was no doubt in your mind. I was the one who was jealous and insecure," Bella says. "You had no reason to question my love or commitment."

"I agree, you never gave me a reason to question how you felt about me until you left," I tell her, swallowing hard.

"Let's explore this more. Do you feel like there is weight to that theory, Edward?" Angela wonders. "Is this the first time you've felt threatened or jealous over Bella?"

"I don't know," I say, unable to look away from my wife's sad eyes. "I guess so. It's the first time it feels like… like I could lose her. Which is irrational maybe because she's pregnant with my baby and we called off the divorce but…"

"You're not going to lose me," she whispers. "But it's proof I caused this. I pushed you away. I left and gave you all of my insecurities. I turned you into me. Now you're jealous and don't trust me. I didn't mean to and I didn't want that… but it's what happened," Bella mumbles, her voice cracking. "I ruined you. And I'm so sorry."

"You didn't ruin me," I say firmly.

"Unintentionally, yes," she cries, reaching for another tissue.

"Baby, no. Stop saying that."

"You were whole before me. Normal. Think about it, Edward. You even said it yourself in Denver, you've changed. Everything I said in our last therapy appointment? All of my issues started before you. All of yours happened because of me. After me. As a result of loving me. Why would you ever forgive me or trust me again?"

My mouth goes dry.

I get the point she's trying to make.

And what she's saying isn't anything I haven't thought about, especially when I was in a dark headspace during our split.

I blamed her. For everything. It helped me cope because it shifted the accountability. If it was all on her then it was out of my control. If it was all on her then she was the problem, not me. That doesn't mean I loved her any less. I just needed our separation to make sense, but nothing did. So I clung to the idea it was her because I couldn't fix us.

Hearing her take on this sole responsibility now with so much remorse in her voice and tears in her eyes sends a punch to my gut.

It makes me realize how wrong I've been. It makes me realize how much my resentment is affecting her.

She deserves more from me. She deserves me to be in this with her fully and stop blaming her. To stop punishing her. Because deep down, I know I still am.

I need to fucking move on. Here and now.

I need to let go of this bitterness.

I need to let go of my wounded pride and anger.

I need to forgive her the way she forgave me.

"What are you thinking?" Bella murmurs, dabbing her eyes with the tissue. "Say something, please."

"You're taking the blame when you don't have to. I played my part in this, too, and I'm so fucking sorry if I made you think otherwise," I say, determined to change her mind now that I know how she feels. "I know I've been an unfair, hypocritical dick about Levi. And I'm sorry because you don't deserve that."

"But I get it," she mumbles, shrugging.

"Doesn't mean it's right. I lied to you and you're here and willing to make this work. And I'm so grateful you are, Bell," I whisper like we're the only two people here. "I don't care if I'm a different person because of things that happened in our marriage. That's just a side effect of life. I chose you. I chose to be in this with you, for better or worse, and I meant that."

She nods, and I can see how my words affect her. Her eyes soften. Her chest rises and falls with a long, deep breath. Like this weight she's been carrying has lifted. It encourages me to keep talking because I realize she's probably needed to hear some of this for a long time, but I couldn't see past my hurt ego to reassure her.

"Loving someone so fucking wholly the way I do with you is going to come with bumps and bruises. That doesn't mean it's not worth it because it is. That shit heals," I admit, reaching for her hand again. "We'll be okay. We have to be. I won't accept anything else."

"I know," she whispers, using her right hand to wipe away another tear that slips down her cheek. "I just get worried this will be too much for you one day. I don't know."

"It's not too much. You're not too much, and I'm not going anywhere. I know I get in my head, but even knowing everything we've been through, I'd still pick you, Bella. I'd still choose this life because it's ours," I say fiercely, needing her to believe that. "You asked how I could ever forgive or trust you again and it's simple—you're my person. My fucking home, and I love you. I love you and I'm so sorry I've blamed you because this isn't your fault. We both made mistakes. We'll both move past it. It's the only way. You and me, baby." I bring our clasped hands to my mouth and kiss the spot where her ring used to be. "Always."