It's after midnight by the time Billie finishes working on the review that's due this week, so technically it's her birthday.
40, she thinks, after she gets out of the shower and slides into bed beside her sleeping husband. 40, 40, 40. Ugh.
Really, 40 is nothing. Nothing. She knows this, but she still can't fight off the gloom. She knows the reason why, of course. It's a fun reason. A gorgeous reason. A reason that right at that minute is drowsily stirring behind her, slipping a hand over her hip bones to pull her back against him. Her husband, Zack, who has just (fairly recently) obtained the far less advanced age of 25.
“Hey, roomie,” he mutters sleepily behind her. Zack is a nicknamer, one of those people who seems incapable of calling those close to him by their actual names. He usually calls her “Wifey” or “Babe”, but others slip in too. “Roomie” is probably her favorite. It's what they called each other when he first moved in, back when she was still pregnant with Henry and she and Zack were still trying to fumble around and figure out what they were to each other.
“What time is it?” he asks, glancing at his phone on the nightstand. “Hey, happy birthday!”
“Ugghh, go to sleep,” she moans into her pillow. “Don't remind me.”
“Don't remind you?” he says, sounding less and less sleepy with every word, which irritates her. It's not his fault, but she's so tired and she actually feels 40, and she just wants to forget about it for now. “What's going on?”
“I don't know,” she huffs out. “40 just seems so…so old! And you're practically a teenager.”
“Oh, shut it,” he says. She can hear him smiling. “I am not. I'm a dad. I'm a husband. I'm your husband. I thought we were past this.”
“We were past it when I was in my 30s but now…I don't know. I feel like one of those rich old men who hooks up with some 20 year old girl and then they just look even older. And pathetic.”
“Well,” Zack says, considering, “First of all, you're about seventeen minutes OUT of your 30's. And also I think the age difference has to be bigger before you hit pathetic. Or like, you'd have to be my former teacher or something. As is, you're just in ‘slightly scandalous, hot cougar’ territory, ya know?”
She's laughing now. Zack can always make her do that, no matter what is going on their lives. He always makes her smile.
“But seriously,” she asks. “Don't you ever…ever think about it? If there were no Henry and you were dating someone your own age? Because we wouldn't be together if you hadn't knocked me up on some drunken night out, y'know?"
“I guess, sometimes,” he says thoughtfully. “Not exactly in that way, though.”
She doesn't know why she's still surprised by his honesty after this much time, but she is. People expect him to be flighty since he's young, or...weak, somehow. But in a lot of ways, Zack is far steadier than anyone she's ever known. It can be disconcerting really, how he can go from acting like he's in his teens to looking at her with that even, ageless gaze of his. She's come to realize it's not really an age thing, it's just a Zack thing. He will be both more youthful AND more mature than she is, than most people are, for his entire life. He probably always has been.
She sees that forthrightness in Henry sometimes, in the set of his little toddler jaw, in the way he goes from a serious, furrowed look to deep belly laughs in seconds. Henry looks a lot like her, but in those moments he is pure Zack. It hasn't occurred to her until right this second that maybe Zack does the same thing. Maybe he sees her same blonde curls growing out of Henry's little head, sees him tell a story while gesturing wildly with his hands, and sees her. It's a nice thought.
How can she ever separate their relationship from parenting their shared child? How could she ever separate Zack from everything that is Henry? She couldn't. She can't. Maybe he can't either.
“I mean, I wish that it weren't a thing,” he continues. “Our ages. I wish it weren't something that's just going to come up sometimes, or that you're going to feel uncomfortable about. But you know, I didn't really know you before Henry so I can't say, ‘if there wasn't a Henry’. Mostly 'cause I don't even want to think about there not being a Henry." She smiles at that. She definitely agrees.
"But also because I don't know who I am without being Henry's dad. I wasn't a grown-up until him, and I didn't have him until you. I wasn't this person. I can't say what alternate universe me would want.” She feels him shrug behind her. “All I know is what I want. And that's you.” he pulls her closer, his voice husky in her ear. “I want you. I'm yours. I'm your man, not a boy.”
She shivers. This is another thing Zack has always been able to do, make her want him. Even when she was ridiculously pregnant, or when she's tired, or when she's furious with him. He just has to say he's sorry. He just has to look at her, even, with those brown eyes of his, and she's stupidly gone over him again.
Maybe that's part of it, too. Billie is funny, according to everyone who knows her. A jokester, a good time. But she's no fool. She never has been. And that's something that worries her, deep down, hidden from even herself most of the time. She knows in her heart that she could make a fool of herself over Zack, just like those old men chasing young girls who want their money. It would be bad enough to lose him, but like that? The thought makes her sick.
“What if you meet someone else?” she asks in a small voice. “Some hot, young…” she continues, tries to voice some of what's on her mind.
He listens in silence, but what he's thinking is that the idea that he would leave her merely for someone else's sexiness is ridiculous. There has never been anyone in his (admittedly not very long) life who has ever appealed to him like Billie does.
It's funny to him that she works so hard at it, with makeup and careful hairstyles and clothes that she chooses to be flattering. And she looks amazing when she gets ready, he has to admit. But he likes her best like this, when she comes to bed at night with all of it washed away.
No matter how tired she is, she takes a long, hot shower at the end of every day. She's a bath product junkie, so their small bathroom is full of bottles and tubs of potions for her to use. And all of it, all of it smells like food. Lemon sugar scrubs, honeycomb soaks, pumpkin face masks, vanilla and orange bubble bath. Shampoo that's made with mint and rosemary. Thick coconut lotion that she coats herself with before she sleeps.
Zack has always liked food, always appreciated flavor, even before he made it his life's ambition to be a chef. And so when she washes away the day and comes to bed damp and warm and smelling like a tropical orchard with a bakery inside of it, he can never resist leaning over to nibble on her a bit. She's delicious. His entire life with her is delicious, actually, and he'd be an idiot to fuck it up.
He waits patiently while she groans about her age, in whatever middle of the night/midlife crisis soliloquy she's throwing at him right now. That's just Billie. She's expressive. It's cool with him.
When she pauses, he says “The thing is, everything is...perfect. I don't wanna jinx it but... " Zack looks reflexively at the ceiling and crosses himself, which never fails to make Billie grin.
He'd been raised Catholic as a kid and had started going to church again with Mr Marnatelli, his boss at the restaurant, when he stopped being able to drive. Some Sundays he takes Henry, wetting down his baby-fine curls and clipping a tiny bow tie onto his shirt. "We look so GOOD, my dude", he'll always say afterward, doing GQ poses in the mirror with his son.
Sometimes Billie goes too, if she's not working on a column, or if (especially if) she has a new dress she wants an excuse to wear. She isn't sure how much of it she believes in (sometimes none, very rarely most, usually somewhere in between) but there's still something about the church that she loves, sitting there in the pew and holding Zack's hand as Mr. Marnatelli bounces Henry on one knee. Sun shines in through the old stained glass windows and she closes her eyes, letting the priest's words and the hymns wash over her like a forest stream, not even really taking it in. She just lets it flow over and around and through her, making her feel calm in a way not much else does. It's like watching Henry sleep, peaceful under his dinosaur quilt, or lying in silence curled up after a great movie with Zack, or the way the stars look over the ocean at night.
“So yeah, I don't want to test fate by saying it,” Zack continues, “but Bills...things are perfect. You know? My job, your job, the house. Our boy.”
He's right. They'd found the house first. It being San Francisco, they'd despaired of ever finding anything suitable in their price range, but then one day there it was…a small, sage green bungalow in a quiet, hilly neighborhood. Everything about it was out of date, and the floor on one side of the dining room still slopes so badly that it's Henry's favorite place to play, since he can line his cars up and then watch them zoom down and away with the slightest push.
But it had still been perfect for them, with a big kitchen and a weird storage space tucked under that stairs that she'd managed to make into an office. It had a postage stamp sized patio for Zack to line up the herbs he's started to grow, and enough yard for a sandbox and slide for Henry.
And then one day when Zack was pushing Henry around in his stroller to get acquainted with the neighborhood, he'd seen a “HELP WANTED” sign in the corner of Marnatelli’s big front window, and that was that.
She knows Mr Marnatelli had hired Zack because he can cook, really cook, but also part of it had to do with the fact that his wife had died recently, and his only child (a daughter, who didn't want children herself), lived across the country in New York. He was lonely for someone like Zack, someone young and enthusiastic with a baby he'd bring to work sometimes.
That had been over two years ago, and now they were… well, family. Zack had gotten business up again with an expanded menu and a delivery service (which in turn had meant a job for Henry's beloved Uncle Davis, who surprisingly agreed to not get stoned on days he drove the delivery car, in exchange for decent pay and all the ravioli he could eat.) Billie used whatever connections she had at the paper (she was only there two days a week now, working from home the rest of the time) to get a food critic out to Marnatelli’s, and since the food was truly, truly good, the kind of old world Italian that almost made you cry when you ate it, the review was glowing and business did even better.
And of course, the best thing of all was their funny, happy, beautiful baby boy. Henry was a delight, even as a colicky baby, even now when he threw the rare tantrum. He was just a fantastic, sunny kid, and both Billie and Zack marvel sometimes at how close they came to never meeting, and never having him at all.
So yes, life is pretty close to perfect, she has to agree with Zack there. “I know,” she says. “It's amazing. I always wanted this, I think. Sometimes it's hard to believe I have it, especially the way we got it.”
“I don't know if I ever thought about it much,” Zack says. “I mean yeah, I guess I assumed I'd have kids someday. But I didn't think about a wife, really. I suppose I thought I'd meet some woman someday who was fun and cool. And hot. So, you know, done and done and done.” He smiles at her in that way that makes her melt every time.
“But what about in the future?” she asks. “When you're all gorgeous and I look like an old lady. What are people going to say? Hell, they probably say it now. Guys your age, I mean.”
“Nah,” he says. “You're in better shape than half the people my age anyway. And all the guys my age just assume you must have some kinda bedroom sorcery going on.” She snorts. “Well, you do!” he says. “You give off the vibe.”
They're quiet for a minute. “And what about you?” he asks. “Don't you think I worry sometimes? That you're gonna get tired of having a husband that people your age tend to treat like a dumb kid at first? That you'll realize you could have some super educated guy who's really established in his career and has tons of money and could really take care of you and Henry?”
It has honestly never crossed her mind. “Zack, come on!” she says, turning to look at him. “You don't think that, do you? You're not serious.”
“Sometimes, yeah,” he says quietly, looking down at the pillow. “Not a lot. But sometimes. I think anytime you love something a lot, you worry about losing it. Right?”
“Yeah,” she says back in a whisper. “Of course I do. It's just…you were only 22 and I worry that I kept you from living or, or doing something you should have gotten to do.”
“Like what?” he asks. “Like I said, I sort of knew I’d have a wife and kids someday. If I got it earlier than most, more power to me, huh? We're just us. You and me. Not numbers. And what if we were both 22 when we met and we just stayed together? My cousin Clay, you remember, you met him at that thing? Well, he and his wife Taylor have been together since the sixth grade. It happens.”
“Really?” she asks.
“Oh yeah. They used to hold hands on the playground. It was hot.”
She's laughing now. “That's honestly adorable.”
“It is,” he agrees, and then in one practiced, smooth movement, he rolls and she's under him, his arms braced on either side of her. “You're adorable, yourself.” He starts kissing his way down her neck, his beard tickling her skin and sending little warm shocks all through her.
“I'm too old to be adorable,” she says, grumpily, but her arms are already around him, her hands stroking the smooth, bare expanse of his back. He lowers himself down onto her, and he's so warm and just so…Zack. Her Zack. “You still smell like a skittle,” she giggles under him.
“Hush, woman,” he says, smiling right against her mouth. “I'm working here. Pay attention...I'm about to do some real grown-up stuff.”
And then for quite awhile she can't say she's thinking about her age or Zack's age or really, anything at all.
Later, when they're curled against each other, naked and happy and exhausted, he asks “are we gonna have to do this every birthday? I mean, not this part…this part was great.”
“I don't think so,” she tells him. “Maybe...maybe just the big ones? Like 45, 50…”
He sighs. “All right. I can deal with that, I suppose. I just hate to see you feel bad, you know? Cause I love you so much.”
He does. She really and truly knows that he does. And that should be more than enough for her or anyone. “I love you back.”
She can feel his mouth turn up into a grin against her shoulder blade. "Good. Now get some rest, huh? I'll take Henry in with me tomorrow and make your picnic, and you can sleep in.”
That's all she said she wanted for her birthday, just a picnic at the beach with Zack's delicious food, and all of her friends. Ryan and whatever girl he's seeing this week, Davis, who will be alone and trying to pretend he's not still hung up on Olivia, who will be there and will also be alone (until she leaves with Davis to continue their weird whatever-it-is), Abby and Nick and their sweet baby Lily, her parents, and Mr Marnatelli, who is making his show stopping tiramisu, just for her. (He actually promised, in a whisper like he was divulging state secrets, to make two…one for the picnic and one just for her, to take home.)
Everyone she loves, a sunny day, her beautiful boy, her husband who loves her, and the best tiramisu in the world.
Suddenly, 40 looks pretty damn good.