I’m not a good human being. I know that, I’ve come to terms with it many years ago. I lack a moral compass, empathy. I don’t think of consequences, I don’t follow societal norms, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. At least that’s what the shrink says in the court mandated sessions we have, a totally annoying, yet non-negotiable condition of my parole.
Like she’s telling me anything I wasn’t already aware of. I fuck people’s lives up. It’s what I’m good at. I think solely about myself, which coincidentally, I’m also good at. I don’t need any fucking doctor with bad skin and chronic halitosis to drive that point into my skull. It’s been both my downfall and my weapon, ever since I could remember. It was a me or them attitude, always, even if it was my own sister. And I always won. I would do what I needed to do, run over who I needed to, to survive. I never felt guilty about it. I guess that’s where lacking a conscience comes in handy.
Until Nicky came along. I never wanted a kid. Hell, I couldn’t handle myself, let alone be responsible for another human, but I felt it anyway…that swell of love they all talk about when you hold your baby for the first time. Like I made him, I created this amazing little man. Well, Sean too, I guess, if you’re into the particulars, but Nicky…he was the first person who loved me without wanting anything back. My parents could only love me if I was a good girl, Faith could only love me if I was helping to feed her crack habit, Sean…I was a prize to him. Nothing more and we both knew it. Nicky saw me, fucked up ways and all and he loved me still. Not that I deserved it. Not going to ever win any Mom of the Year awards, not after what I’d put him through. But I hope one day he realizes it was all for him. All of it.
Now there isn’t just Nicky who sees me for who I really am and loves me anyway. I fought it, god, did I fucking fight it. Tried to convince myself it was about sex, tried to use her like I use everyone else. I don’t know when it was, I realized I loved her. Was it one of the sleepless nights in lock up, staring at the cracks in the wall? Was it when I showed up to her door and caught her before she fainted (Stephanie always did have the flare for the dramatic)? Or was it before that…martinis and late-night conversations, and the sweet little good morning texts that should have made me roll my eyes but made me smile, in spite of myself.
She curls against me now, smiling in her sleep, pressing into the small of my back until she gets comfortable and stops moving. It’s weird, the stupid thing my heart does, when she does something tiny and insignificant. I’m still not used to it and I probably won’t ever be, if I’m being honest (I’m aware what a hilarious irony that is). But it feels normal too, at the same time, like we’re this normal couple, not some newspaper story, and I like that. I like everything about this new normalcy, and it should scare the shit out of me. I hated my life with Sean, hated the complacency about it, hated my job, I fucking loathed what I’d gotten myself into. The only thing good to come out of the entire fucking disaster was Nicky
I haven’t seen him in four years. I don’t know what he likes now or if his favorite food is still pizza or if he misses me. I don’t know what Sean’s said about me or if he pretends I don’t exist because he won’t return my phone calls and he has full custody and a court order to keep me away. Steph’s tried to keep in contact and Sean was a little more willing to talk to her because he saw her as a victim of “my manipulation” or some bullshit. Whatever he needs to tell himself to sleep at night, right? But some asshole spilled that I live here and just like that, he changed his number.
He sent her his soccer picture last year. She printed it out for me so I could frame it. Nicky looks older, of course, but his eyes are still the same and it makes my throat constrict. I can face it down on the nightstand and pretend it doesn’t exist and that my kid isn’t thousands of miles away being told I abandoned him or whatever lies Sean chose to make up. Doesn't make it hurt any less, though.
She tells me that I’ll see him again, that of course, he hasn’t forgotten about me, I’m his mom and yeah, he may be angry, but she knows he’ll want to see me when he’s able to. And that’s Stephanie in a nutshell…always with the kind of sunny optimism I always hated in other people, the kind that nauseated me. If anyone had told me five years ago, I’d be completely pussy whipped for a tiny, over-achieving PTA mom, I would have laughed in their face.
She’s the polar opposite of anyone I’ve ever been with or would think of being with. She was a conquest at first, a prize to win. Another person to fall all over me and who’d do whatever I wanted. No guilt, no strings attached, no emotion, cards held close to the vest, same as always.
When you’re in jail, you have time to think. Too much time and I knew I’d fucked up. More than that, I cared that I’d fucked up. Not with Sean, who was fucking his TA the entire time, but over what a shit mother I’d been. How I probably screwed my kid up for life. And then there was Stephanie. I re-played a thousand different ways that day could’ve gone. Ultimately, all the imaginary scenarios ended the same way. Stephanie and I escaped somewhere with all my money and with our boys. We would start a brand-new life. But I had been selfish and jealous, and I’d gone and ruined everything. I’d made her hate me, which ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given a shit about, but I also realized something else in between pick-up games in the yard and reading anything I could get my hands on: I wanted her. I wanted her more than I’ve ever wanted anybody. And if I had to grovel and beg and fix myself when (and if) I got out; I swore I would.
More than once, I had that familiar sense of dread settle into the pit of my stomach. That all of this wouldn’t be enough someday. That Steph’s forgiveness and Miles and the house, all of it, it wouldn’t be enough. The uncertainty made me breathless and out of control and there’s nothing I detest more. So, I made a list. A stupid, trivial list on my phone of all the reasons I loved her. It was absolutely ridiculous and indulgent and I must have worked on it with more diligently than any multi-million dollar deal I'd set up in the past.
1. She let's me cook and take control of the kitchen and doesn’t say a word, even though it’s killing her.
2. The way her eyes crinkle up at the corners when she’s trying to be stern with me or at Miles but she wants to smile.
3. Her laugh. Completely dorky and infectious.
4. When she dances around in the morning.
5. How dedicated she is to that stupid vlog.
6. The way she curls into me after sex, all sweaty and spent but kind of purring and content like a kitten or something.
7. The sex itself.
8. She’s a great mom to Miles but she can sense when I need to mother him too and she lets me.
9. The constellation of freckles on her left shoulder blade.
10. Because she is slowly learning to trust me again. Even though I probably don’t deserve it. Even though I know I don’t.
When I’d finished, it was almost 100 items long and I had to give a few good eye rolls just to chastise myself for the soppy mess I’d just written but the tightness in my chest had gone away. Maybe this would be enough to sustain me. Stephanie. The family we’d created with Miles and how one day when Nicky was with us, it would be complete. Maybe the old Emily ceased to exist. I had to remind myself she never really existed in the first place.
“Hey,” she opens her eyes, glances up at me sleepily. “You okay?”
It was a loaded question and we both knew it. “I mean, define okay."
Stephanie smiles. “I mean you’re up at,” she squints at the digital clock on the nightstand, “two-thirty in the morning.”
“So are you,” I remind her, taking her in my arms. I kiss her temple, stroke her hair, tangling it up in my fingers.
“Touché.” She stretches up and finds my mouth and for a minute, no one is talking, save for quiet moans.
“Em?” Stephanie looks at me in the dim light when we finally break away.
“Hmm?” My brain has short circuited because I want more. I always want more of her.
“Are you happy? Here with us, I mean.”
The pause in her tone makes me kiss her again, though it is gentle this time. Stephanie’s never voiced her fears, not after that first night when we both admitted this whole thing went way beyond the physical. It was obviously something she’d considered before but she’d been too frightened to say and the thought of her being scared of me, in any way at all, makes me crazy.
It made sense we had the same fears because she knew me. Probably better than anyone, with all her amateur detective work. What’s more was she knows who I am and she doesn't care. Like me, she holds no illusions that she or anyone else can magically fixed the fucked up parts of me. She doesn’t try to.
I get it, though. Stephanie may trust me but she still needs reassurance I won’t up and run. That I’m in this.
And finally, I can give that to her.
“Baby,” I punctuate the endearment with kisses, first on her forehead, then her cheek, then the curve of her jaw. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
“No.” She tips her neck toward me, allowing me to drag my lips over the network of veins there. I can feel her pulse against my teeth, and I nibble at it lightly. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s like my whole life I was trying to escape, you know? First from my parents, then my sister, Sean. I was trapped in that life. But I don’t feel like that anymore, Steph. Life is wide open now. I’ve got you and I’ve got Miles and Nicky. There isn’t anything to run from, there’s something to run to now.”
Tears wet my cheeks and I expect them to be Stephanie’s but to my complete and utter shock, they’re mine.
Crying is a sign of weakness, I used to tell myself. Or a way to con. But real tears, borne out of sadness or frustration, no. I swore I’d never shed a single tear for anyone, ever again.
I guess once a liar, always a liar.
If Stephanie notices, she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she kisses me, hard, and I sigh against her mouth. “Love you," she tells me breathlessly.
And I know this is the closest to happy I’ll ever be.