Note: One of the greatest things an author can hear is “So what happens next?” I was lucky enough to hear this from an amazing author named Anne after publishing a story titled “Most Guys”. (You can find it here.) I gave her an honest answer and said, “I don’t know.” She proposed that maybe we could find out together. So for the past few months we have been playing tag with the lives of Adam and Emma in order to answer that question. The result was a few tears, a few more laughs, and the story below. I invite you all to go over and check out Anne’s writing here on the condition that you don’t abandon me for her superior stories.
I waited nervously by the door, resisting my desire to check the mirror one last time. Adam would arrive at any minute. The details of our last date, our honesty date, played over and over in my mind, but it was the question I hadn’t asked that taunted me. Did he really not care that I was pregnant? How could he not care?
Half of me was thrilled that he would accept a “me” that was rapidly becoming an “us”. The other half was unsure what to tell him, uncertain what he would say, or what he must think. Did he genuinely want to be with me, or was it just some overblown act of chivalry?
I recognized the double stutter of Strawberry, his little red Honda, as it pulled up in front of my apartment building. The sound of jingling keys grew as he neared and then stopped just outside my front door. My heart picked up its nervous pace when the silence lasted longer than it should have.
The knock at the door struck sudden panic in me. I couldn’t let him know my face was pressed against it! To stall, I pictured myself washing my hands casually in the sink, walking across the floor, and then realized he wouldn’t hear any footsteps. I took my shoes off and scooted them quietly out of view before I answered the door barefoot.
“I’m almost ready,” I lied with a smile, glancing down at my feet. Hopefully, this wasn’t another honesty date.
Shutting the door in his face without thinking, I grabbed my shoes and raced to the bedroom. Then I walked casually back as loudly as I could with my shoes on. Opening my door again, I stepped out and locked it behind me. I dropped my keys into my purse and turned to look up at Adam. Was I supposed to kiss him? Too nervous. Should I apologize for shutting the door in his face? Maybe he didn’t notice.
“Well… Hi. You look great.”
His voice had a shaky quality that made me think that I wasn’t the only nervous one. It was kind of cute the way he cleared his throat and tried to speak a little deeper when he continued. I wondered if he deliberately kept his hands in his pockets to hide their shaking.
“Thanks, I was worried. You never said where we were going.”
“Tonight we’re going to play a game. I need you to pick a number between 1 and 100. But you need to know that the higher the number you pick, the more fun it will be.”
Adam’s lips rose slightly in a little smirk as he waited for my answer. He really wasn’t most guys. It was easy to forget between dates.
I thought over the possibilities. Picking a low number might sound like I didn’t trust him. Pick 100 and I might as well just get undressed on my porch. He never should have admitted that he loved my pauses. I leaned my head back against the discolored paint where my apartment number had once been. It was the sort of thing Adam might have asked about, but he never did.
“Twenty-seven,” my voice said almost on its own. I instantly regretted it. Any number would be better than that one, but I couldn’t explain why. “It’s not that I don’t want to have fun, it’s just that I…”
This wasn’t an honesty date.
“…hope you’re not disappointed.”
He laughed and shook his head.
“Disappointed? You could have picked one and I would just be happy for a minute with you. C’mon. I will explain what we’re gonna do in the car.”
He took a couple steps and then froze. Turning back to me, he looked embarrassed.
“That came out wrong. I meant I’ll explain once we’re in the car. Not what we’re gonna do in the car…”
“I sure hope not,” I laughed. “Not if you were going to be happy with one minute.”
Adam led me down the walkway and opened the door for me when we reached Strawberry. He jogged around the front of the car with the excitement of a little boy about to go for a ride to the toy store. Slipping into his seat, he started the car while applying a few gentle pats to the steering wheel.
“There’s an envelope in the glove compartment. Would you grab it?”
I opened the small door below the dashboard. Adam began explaining as I pulled out a manila envelope and slid a nail under the seal to tear it open.
“Inside that envelope you will find a page divided into four sections with a number at the top of each. In each section is a list of words. Those are hints.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
His smile grew wider.
“I’m glad you asked. You must pick two words, and they can’t be from the same section. Each hint represents a task. If you complete the task, you will get the points for it. But be forewarned, the higher the point value, the harder the task will be. We must finish at least one of the tasks from the two words you select before you can pick two more and learn what the next task will be. Our goal is to get twenty-seven points.”
“How many points did I get for opening the envelope?”
Adam laughed. “It’s not going to be that easy.”
My fingers trembled a little, trying not to show the curiosity that bubbled inside me by diving inside the envelope like a kitten after a piece of yarn. Having found their prize, I slid the paper out and laid it flat on my lap, smoothing out a couple of imaginary wrinkles. It was noticeably heavier than normal paper and had the name Emma printed in long fancy lettering at the top. It was good to know he wasn’t just recycling some old date for me.
Scanning the words on the list, my mind immediately began the word association game, trying to get inside Adam’s head. “Stars” could mean grabbing a blanket and watching the night sky, or going on a hunt for a celebrity. I looked suspiciously at my date. A point for everything I could find named after a star? Ugh! Each clue opened a door to infinite possibilities.
“This is hard! I don’t know what to pick. And I don’t know what kind of date you think this is going to be, but I am not picking “lap”!
Adam shrugged, but kept his eyes on the road.
“Your loss. I wore special underwear for that one, just in case…”
I giggled and quickly covered my mouth. Okay, he probably didn’t mean that! I’d already settled on the word “stars”. I closed my eyes, poked a finger down on the paper, and then opened them again to read the result. “Brush.” I darted through the other categories.
“Brush and hmm… fire sounds interesting,” I announced. “I’m sure you told your friends you had a hot date, right?”
“Actually, no. My friends are all much better looking than me and I can’t risk losing you to their sexiness before I’ve had the chance to win you over with my wit and charm.”
A tight smile stretched at my lips. If he couldn’t see that he had already won me over then I would have to do a better job of showing him.
“Sexiness huh? Which one of these words takes us over to meet them?”
“I made sure to leave ‘ditched’ off the list…”
“Eh. I don’t think I would have picked that one anyway.” He didn’t really need to know why. My unasked question crept back into my head. What did he think was going to happen over the next seven months? To me. To us. “She’s a girl,” I said aimlessly.
“Who’s a girl?”
“I had an ultrasound. You couldn’t see… you know… anything? It’s still a little too early to be certain… I just feel it.”
Silence was the last response I’d expected, or hoped for. I waited for another joke, but he just continued to look straight ahead and drive. His calm made me wonder if he had the same storm swirling around in his head as I had in mine. I’m sure it wasn’t the conversation he’d hoped for when he planned this night.
“I already picked my words, ‘stars’ and ‘brush’.”
“The constellation Aquarius was named after the cupbearer to the Gods,” he said, channeling his best narrator voice. “Legend has it that Jupiter, the king of the Gods, spotted a boy so beautiful that he flew down to Earth in the form of a giant bird and took him up to the heavens to serve the Gods drinks for all eternity. To get the points for ‘stars’ you have to find Aquarius while we enjoy a glass of grape juice. And to get the points for ‘brush’ we have to paint a painting. If we keep it you only get half the points, but if we can sell it for at least ten dollars you will get all the points. Choose wisely.”
“Jupiter was into beautiful boys? I thought that was Zeus. Kind of makes you wonder what a cupbearer’s job description looks like.”
He chuckled a little at whatever thought that caused to run through his mind. I let out a quiet breath and felt some of the tension evaporate.
“You know you can’t see Aquarius at this time of year, right? It’s behind the sun.”
“Ah crap! Smart and beautiful? I’m out of my league here.”
“It doesn’t matter. I was going to choose the painting anyway.” I smiled enough to make sure it caught his peripheral attention.
Perfectly manicured trees and flowers drifted by as we drove through the high-end part of the suburb. Pedestrians dressed in the latest fashions belonged among the modern façades that adorned each business and rows of trendy condos. Adam’s car clearly did not, but he made each new turn without even a glance at the street signs. Coffee shops and boutiques quickly gave way to a beautiful park with a lake at its center.
Adam pulled along the curb and shifted the car into park, before turning to look at me. He didn’t say anything for a moment and seemed to just study my face. Then, like sunlight bursting through the clouds, his smile returned.
“Stay here for a sec. I need to grab our supplies out of the trunk and you can’t see what other fun surprises might be in store for you.”
As I waited, my imagination ran wild with what went through his mind each time he looked at me. Smart and beautiful he’d said. The muffled thud of the trunk being shut snapped derailed my train of thought.
Adam led us along a path that wound through a small grove of trees. As we came out the other side, he headed straight for a bench that faced the lake and set down the armful of supplies he had gathered from his trunk.
“I figured we could paint the lake. Or we could just do an abstract and try to figure out what our subconsciouses are trying to say.”
The thought of my subconscious telling him things made me shudder so I shook my head.
“Well, what do you want to paint?”
There was never any doubt about what I wanted to paint.
“Each other… sort of…”
“I’m allergic to being painted. And I didn’t save the receipt for the canvas so we have to use it.”
All my self-control wasn’t enough to hide the smile that showed how much I liked that idea. “No, I mean I want to paint a portrait of us. You’ll see.”
“You just want to see the special underwear don’t you?”
“Not at all…”
He feigned a look of insult and interrupted me, “Ouch! I mean I was hoping common human curiosity would at least kick in a little…”
“It’s my task; we’ll do it my way.” I stood in front of him, with the lake behind me, and struck a pose. “Your turn first, Underoos.”
Adam’s face turned serious as he set about creating a masterpiece. I studied him in quiet admiration for some time while he worked. With his brow knitted in concentration, the strength in his face was beautiful. He looked both wise and kind as he worked: wise enough to know something was bothering me; kind enough not to ask. I had to know.
“You probably think my ex is a real creep… for leaving me pregnant. He’s not as bad as it might seem.”
He showed only a Da Vinci-esque devotion to his work, so I continued.
“I’m sorry for being so moody.”
He paused and looked into my eyes. In the span of a second, he realized he had broken character and mumbled something about not being able to get the color of my eyes right in a failed attempt to cover it up.
“He called today. He said he’d take me back if I’d get rid of the baby.”
I wanted desperately to see his reaction, but he stayed hidden behind the canvas.
“We got in a pretty big fight over it. I’m not getting rid of my baby.”
There it was. It was out there, or at least part of it was. I knew he could hear how badly my voice was starting to shake.
“Well then next time we do this I may need to bring a bigger canvas.” He peeked around the side of the painting so that he could see my reaction while still hiding his.
“I know,” I laughed, nervously. “Some kind of a date, right, talking about my ex? It’s the hormones. I blame the hormones.” I looked down from my pose. “You hear that don’t you, little girl? You’re ruining Adam’s concentration. I’m going to end up looking like a Picasso.”
The soft click of the brush being set down caused me to look up just as he stepped out from behind our masterpiece.
“Look, I know that this isn’t really any of my business, so I’ve been fighting to hold my tongue, but if you’ll forgive me, I just want to say this. First of all, I’m glad you’re not getting rid of the baby. Not many people know this, but I was adopted. I thank God that my mother, whoever she was, gave me the chance to have nights like this, even though she will never know about them. Secondly, your ex is an ass. It is hard enough to find one woman as incredible as you, but if your daughter turns out to be anything like you, then you could have two of the most beautiful, amazing women in your life at the same time. Only a fool would let that go.”
My emotions were too much. I wanted to scream at the word “adopted” when I heard it, and then, when I realized that wasn’t what he meant… I couldn’t stop the tears from squeezing out, tickling my cheeks as I struggled to hold my composure. It was Adam’s business if he wanted it to be.
“Kevin is kind of an ass,” I finally agreed. “I’m glad though. If we had anything special, he wouldn’t have thrown it away just because he isn’t the father.”
“A child’s biological father is not what’s important. What’s important is who their true father is. A baby’s true father is the man who loves her and takes care of her.”
“Even if her biological father was a rapist?”
I almost choked on the words but I’d finally said them. My eyes shut tight, waiting for the train wreck, but the train wreck didn’t come.
“The value of a life doesn’t come from DNA. The value of life, the purpose of life, is love. True life is one that has felt loved and makes the world a brighter place for others. Your love burns so bright it’s almost blinding. And I have no doubt that you will pass on to your daughter that same radiance that lights up every room you enter.”
“You really aren’t most guys, are you, Adam?”
Adam kept busy at the painting. He still seemed bothered by something, but his thin smile indicated it had little to do with my added news. I watched as long as I could.
“Okay Rembrandt, it’s time to see what you’ve got.” I walked over to Adam and sat down close to him on the bench, faking a gasp of surprise. “Hey! I didn’t expect you to paint me nude!”
He seemed confused as he scrutinized his canvas. “It wasn’t supposed to look that way.”
I laughed and kissed his cheek. “It looks great,” I said. “Leave the canvas, and go pretend you’re a statue. It’s my turn now.”
Adam walked over to where I’d been standing and struck the Gerber baby pose.
“I suppose I should get used to seeing that,” I laughed.
My first painting lessons were at age nine. It didn’t take long for me to finish our little project. Adam giggled when I muttered something about “happy little trees”. Once I’d finished, he meandered over to inspect our collaboration and after studying it from a few different angles, broke out in contagious laughter.
“A masterpiece it may not be, but I love it.” I told him. “And I know it will cost me some points, but I’m keeping it.”
Our time together was so easy that time held no meaning. We sipped grape juice under the stars, bought flowers for a drive-through attendant at McDonalds, and even entered a duets karaoke contest at a Korean bar. I forgot all about the points, swept up by our crazy adventure. Only when he turned onto my street did I realize that we had reached the goal of twenty-seven points. His voice pulled me away from the thoughts that flooded my mind and when I looked up, I realized we were at my apartment.
“You okay? You got quiet all the sudden.”
“Fine.” I looked at my lap where Adam’s list of selections had become an amusing, but beautiful picture of our intertwined lives. “I guess I just didn’t think it was supposed to be over yet.”
I don’t know how, but he looked happy and sad at the same time. Ever the gentleman, he got out and walked around to open my door for me. We strolled up the sidewalk slowly, savoring our last moments together.
I stopped just before my door and turned, hoping it would press us awkwardly together, and it did. Adam didn’t pull away. I stretched up on my toes and when he pressed his lips to mine, I melted into them. He floated me back to the beginning of our date, painting me all over again with his kiss, until I realized we were crushing the painting between us. I pulled away apologetically.
“I had an amazing time,” I said, looking up into his eyes.
Adam smiled, but it was mixed with another emotion that I hadn’t learned to recognize in him yet. He reached passed me and ran his finger across the faded paint on my apartment door, tracing the outline of the numbers missing there.
“Twenty-seven,” he whispered quietly. “I thought you picked that number for some other reason…”
“What happens now that we got the twenty seven points?”
“I don’t know. I took so much time planning the date, I guess I forgot to plan how to end it.”
“Can I share something with you?” I asked.
I unlocked the door behind me and pushed it open. Taking Adam’s hand from my chin and holding it in mine, I backed quietly through my door pulling him through after me and closing it behind us. I stopped next to my little sofa.
“I never saw the man who raped me. I was unlocking the door… then he was just behind me. He had a cloth towel of some kind. He wrapped it through my mouth and twisted it behind my head… and he pushed me through the door… He never even closed it.”
“The whole time, I watched the open doorway, praying someone would come by and help me… but there was no one. Only my apartment number… that stupid twenty-seven shining in the moonlight… until he was gone and I could shut my door and lock it out forever.”
Adam looked down at his lap. It was the first time all night that he’d been unwilling to look me in the eyes.
“I’m so sorry. No one should ever have to go through what you’ve been through. I…”
I put my hand on his and smiled. “The landlord put the numbers back the first time I pried them off.”
“Why would you pick a number that carries so much pain with it?” Adam looked up at me again.
“I never meant to,” I said earnestly. “It just came out when you asked for a number.”
I reached to squeeze his hand.
“And I’m glad it did. Twenty-seven is special now. It’s the number of turns we made getting to the park and the number of happy little trees in our portrait. It’s the three extra flowers we put in that girl’s bouquet, and the number of people she probably texted after we left. It’s the number of the song I picked when we did our duet and it’s probably twenty-seven more than the number of words I could repeat in that song. And…”
I placed his hand on my pregnant tummy.
“It’s her lucky number.”