July 14th, 2016
I don’t know how long I embrace Sofia for, but it feels like eternity. Everything comes back to me, like the softness of her hair and the sweet scent of the perfume that she still wears. I want so bad to kiss her, and for a fleeting moment, I try and think back to the last time I ever did, and it’s just a blurred memory.
She told me she wasn’t going to come along with Hudson, but I was more than shocked when I arrived at the airport, waiting at the arrivals, expecting to see my son being accompanied by airport staff, lugging his bag along – instead seeing my ex-wife strolling a metre or so behind his enthusiastic quickened gait, both of them smiling and waving at me. I had only prepared for Hudson’s visit, sorting out the spare bedroom in my apartment, but I gather that now I might have to make different reservations to accommodate for my guests; the spare room is only a single bed, after all. Unless… unless Sofia is willing to share a bed with me, which I highly doubt. But she’s here, and that’s something I didn’t expect, so I guess a man can dream.
“I’ve missed you so much,” I breathe into her shoulder. I can see people watching, obviously drawing up mental narratives of a long-distance relationship or something of the sort. I hear some oohs and aahs when I bend down and squeeze the life out of Hudson, planting a kiss on his cheek and watching him wipe it away with embarrassment. I take the time to look at him and analyse how much he’s grown – he is way taller than he was when I last saw him, and I know he’s going to be a lanky kid. He’ll grow into a great man; I can see it already.
“I’ve missed you too,” Sofia says at some point, and my chest pangs at hearing her say it. I think to how she never wanted to leave me, but she needed to leave me. I forced her to make that decision.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” I mention to Sofia as we stride out of the double doors of the airport exit, pulling their suitcases. “What made you change your mind?”
“Family, primarily,” she says as Hudson walks a few paces ahead of us. He turns around every now and then to keep in track of us, after all he doesn’t know where the car is. “I haven’t seen my mother in a long time, and she’s ill.”
“Oh. That’s a shame,” I respond, and I instantly regret not clarifying that I meant about her mother and not that she isn’t coming for me. I quickly add “I hope she gets better soon.”
“She’s terminal.” She says swiftly and quietly, and I feel stupid. “I’m heading to San Diego tomorrow morning on the train, where my parents are. Hudson will stay with you for a couple of days whilst I try to get things sorted out first with the family; things aren’t going well in general back home. And as I said, I think it’s important you hang out. Father and son time, you know?”
“Yeah, I totally understand.”
And I do, but I wish things were different. Even though I expected it to just me and Hudson, a certain apprehension overwhelms me in thinking that I’ll be left to tend to him alone, now that Sofia’s here too. You know, like that feeling you get when you’re otherwise a maestro in the kitchen but not when your mother comes to visit, and her presence is enough to make you forget how to cook.
I try my best not to stare at Sofia when she sits shotgun, staring out into the view of the city streets around her. I can imagine what she’s thinking of; memories of our spontaneous dates to Italian cafes and bars for sneaky martinis when our neighbour offered to babysit Hudson. Memories of picnics and excursions at the central park. Memories of fights we had, drunken and high voltage, ending with Sofia running off to a local friend or a motel, if it got to that point. The city is dotted with memories of us, and for once I can’t escape it.
“Wow, Bret…” Sofia gawks around at my apartment when she enters. “You’ve really changed things up in terms of living arrangements, haven’t you?”
“You could say so,” I chuckle. “I’ll take Hudson’s bags to my room.”
“Why yours? Why not the spare room?”
“Uhh…” I stutter. “I didn’t know you were coming, but now you’re here, you and Hudson can just crash in my room tonight. I’ll just sleep across the hallway.”
“No. It’s fine. Hudson can take the spare room. Right, Hud?” Sofia looks at him, and he looks at both of us, almost confused, trying to work something out in his head. But then he shrugs, turning back to whichever game he’s playing on his iPhone. His iPhone, goddamnit – what does a twelve-year-old need an iPhone for?
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I ask quietly as I help to transport the bags to their final destination.
“We’re grown adults, Bret. Surely sleeping in the same bed shouldn’t cause as much of a ruckus as it would if we were younger.” Funnily enough, the first time we ever slept together back in high school, we weren’t supposed to. We were just sharing a bed. That’s what was supposed to happen. So it’s understandable why my mind is in a bit of a frenzy right now. I know nine out of ten nothing will happen, but I swear Sofia five years ago wouldn’t lie within a hundred-metre radius of me. I guess maybe time and distance dilute old angers and resentments. But never guilt.
We spend the rest of the day as a family, chatting and updating each other on life. Hudson is a wiz at math – or maths, as he likes to call it. I can’t help but notice his confused dialect and pronunciation, jumping between British and American throughout our conversation, and though it makes me laugh it makes me just as sad. I’ve missed out on so much of my son’s life, and not being one of the first people to hear him throw out new slang words and brag about his new Londoner friends leaves a bitter feeling in my heart. It’s my punishment, and at the end of the day it’s only fair. Throughout the day I watch him and I smile, paying attention to the eyes he stole from Sofia, and the goofy bright smile he stole from me. The same smile I used to win girls over, make fake friends and succeed in job interviews. I hope with a certain comfort that he’ll never be like me, and he’ll be everything like the person I was supposed to be and everything like the person Sofia is.
Sofia and I sit on the couch, and I try hard not to stare at her too much as she sits with her chin on her knees, bent into herself as she looks down in thought. Sometimes she stares at the view of the city from the window, and that’s how it’s been since Hudson went to sleep. We haven’t said much, just thrown around small talk and tried to keep the air around us from souring in any way. I wish to reach out and kiss her, or tell her how much I love her. I know I can’t. I wish I could, but I can’t.
“I know you started doing freelance photography, right?” Sofia pipes up after a while. Her voice is sweet and sleepy, and she rakes her fingers through her hair.
“Oh. Yeah. I’m trying to get back into that,” I cringe, wishing I never had to mention my photography with such awkward hesitance. “I’ve had a dry spell.”
“Hmm,” she bites her nail. She always does – did, when she found herself talking about something she regretted, whether it was for her sake or my own. She can hear the change of tone in my voice. She knows the magnitude of things way more than I can try to hide it. “How have things really been holding on the last couple of years, though? I mean, really. How are things?” she asks with so much concern, I can see it in her eyes. She fucking cares for me and there’s nothing that can be done about it. I can’t love her or reassure her or make her proud anymore. But she still cares for me.
“It’s been hard. I’m not gonna lie. Things have been a struggle. I’ve had one too many bumps in the road, it seems.”
“Have you not met anyone new? Made more friends? Is there nobody here that can help you in any way?” There it is - the classic comforting technique; the patting-a-crying-friend-on-the-shoulder-with-a-broomstick-to-keep-distance technique. I just shrug my shoulders and scratch my neck. “You know that I’ll always be here for you, right? Distance won’t stop that. The past won’t stop that, either. If you’re in trouble I’m here.”
“Well, thanks,” I chuckle. “I was almost afraid you were going to refer me to a therapist you’ve heard of.” I’m not sure whether I sound too sarcastic or douchey, but I feel like I do. “But seriously. Thanks. It means a lot.”
“No problem,” she reaches over to rub my arm as a form of endearment. The physical contact is almost painful at this point. “You mean a lot to me.”
All I can do is smile softly and lazily at her, hoping the silence can plummet us into comfortable depths of our youthful, carefree past. But soon the silence becomes tight, because I can see that she’s reluctant to say something. And I know whatever it is isn’t pretty.
“Bret…” she looks at me. “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.” Here we go.
“I’m finding it really hard to tell you this, and I don’t know why…” she looks at the ground. My heart is already sinking. I know what she’s about to say. “But… I’ve met someone. It’s been a while now; around eight months. It’s been very low-key, all about testing the waters. But I feel satisfied with where things have been going.”
“I’m happy for you,” is all I can say. And of course it’s true. I think it’s possible to feel happy for someone and in the same breath, feel awfully unhappy.
“I just didn’t want to hurt your feelings. I needed to wait for the right moment; I can’t afford to just throw new lovers in your face, you know?”
“Listen, Sofia. After all I’ve done, you’ve got to understand that rightfully divorcing someone and then finding someone new years later can’t warrant any sort of guilt. I mean, it’s me, for Christ’s sake. I’m the one you’re afraid to tell this to. I’ve done worse, and you finding someone is far from terrible. In fact, it needs to have happened, and I’m happy for you.”
“I know, but-”
“You live thousands of miles across the world. You don’t deserve to be lonely. Hudson doesn’t deserve a single mother.”
“I suppose…” she says. “I mean, I am in a much better place than I was. Don’t think it was roses and gold for me when I left, Bret. The first few weeks in London had me crying day in and day out, trying to hold myself together in this new world I’d thrust myself in, and I felt empty without you. I missed you so much, and I just wished things hadn’t happened the way they did. It frustrated me to think that it never had to be this way, and we could just be happy and in love forever. It killed me to let go, but I knew I would be a fool not to. You taught me that – you taught me that your source of happiness can sometimes diminish, but you won’t die because of it,” and she’s crying. A small wobbly voice and hands wiping away tears, she tucks a stray hair behind her ear and she tries to hold herself together. “You can find happiness everywhere. And you should keep it everywhere. You know – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” She chuckles. I reach over to squeeze her, and she lets me.
“Remember how you used to call me an idiot all the time? Whenever I’d mess you around, or try to wind you up? And then it got to the point where you’d sign all of your cards with Dear Idiot, and you changed my contact name to My Idiot with a heart emoji, and we joked about how Hudson would be Idiot Jr., before he was born.” I love hearing her laugh in response; it makes everything feel normal again. “Well, that’s me. It’s in my veins. I’m an idiot, Sofia. You should have never fallen in love with an idiot. You should have run in the other direction. You knew me too well, but you stayed, despite it.”
“Even if you had ‘idiot’ tattooed on your forehead, it wouldn’t have stopped me. It only became a problem when my idiot-proof vest stopped working, and you began pointing your idiot gun in my direction.” I was oblivious to you until you reminded me that I wasn’t immune to your bullshit, is what she’s saying. I hurt everything around me, and I think I hurt myself the most. I’m sure of it. “I just wanted to feel special, like I was the one girl who’d change you. It must feel amazing to know that you can calm a storm, I’m sure. I guess I just stood ahead of the wave with my hands held high, acting as a force field, and I thought it wouldn’t drown me. I should have just been a surfer like all of those other girls.” I get the metaphor quite clearly, and talking about our past makes me want to retreat into myself. “I wish I just rode the wave and went home at sunset, instead of trying to make the waters calm. But on the bright side, I kept pushing because I was hoping it would be worth it, and you gave me a son and a stronger head. And that’s something, you know? That’s something that the surfers wouldn’t get easy.”
We don’t talk much afterwards, and soon enough we wind up in bed. At points, I was itching to mention Jennifer-Rose and the whole sister incident, but I just couldn’t face the first phase of the conversation, where I knew her face would cloud over in frustration and scepticism. Telling her about the phone calls I received keeps playing in my head, and I’m not quite ready for that again. Even if I could explain everything clearly so she would understand, I didn’t see the point in bringing the topic up. We haven’t mentioned her once since she came, and I think it should stay that way. Same with Naomi, or anyone else that we used to know. There’s a difference between reminiscing and opening up old wounds.
We lie in bed facing different directions, our backs touching barely. I try to keep her comfortable, making sure I’m not sliding into the middle too much and pushing her off. Because of this, I’m practically hanging off of my side like vines. I lie in bed thinking about Sofia’s new lover, and what he’s like. If he’s English, educated and handsome, or whatever. I sort of carve my own imaginary man for her, someone who I feel could win her over after heartbreak. The man is a knight in shining armour, with a stunning smile and a seductive accent; he’s nice to animals and kids and has had a string of heartbreaks of his own. He comes from a humble and comfortable background, and is successful in whatever field of work he specialises. He’s everything Sofia needs. He’s not Bret Walker.
I find it hard to fall asleep with Sofia’s presence looming over me, and all I can do is listen to her peaceful breathing. I turn around to face her, finding myself cautiously placing my fingers in her hair. I don’t want to think it’s a creepy move – I used to do it all the time when we were together. Sometimes she’d even ask me to, because she was so used to it. I softly run my ringers through the tresses of her locks as she sleeps facing away from me. I don’t mean to move closer, but I eventually do, and I move in until we’re back to chest.
When she stirs, I panic, quickly assuming my previous position.
“No,” she murmurs. “Come back.” I stay stock still, waiting to see if she really meant it, or if I heard her correctly. “Come. I’m cold.”
So I do, and this time I weave my arm under her. I go in closer, and I listen to her breathing and feel her chest rise and fall.
Just like old times, I think to myself. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I just can’t decide.
The next morning seems like something in a movie. It seems like something I could only have smacked myself for never speculating, despite it making perfect sense.
Because as I fry up a brunch in the kitchen for Sofia, Hudson and me at around noon, Sofia decides to switch on the news channel. We used to argue about channels on TV, because she had a tendency to switch to news despite not actually watching it, or even clocking when it’s a rerun she’s already covered since having the remote. But like the guest she is, I give her full control of most things, like television choice. Little do I know that it will be the beginning of an absurd ending to everything that has been happening to me for the last few months.
“Holy shit…” I hear her cursing from the living room, at first thinking she has injured herself. But then follows, “Bret, come and see this. This is insane.”
Turning the flames down on my food, I quickly enter the living room to find my ex-wife and son gawking at the TV screen like they’ve just seen an apparition. I turn to look, and huge white capitalised font slides at the bottom of the screen, accompanied by footage of an army of cameramen and reporters swamping swarming around a young woman and her parents, in a familiar suburban neighbourhood.
I look to Sofia, and her eyes tell me everything. She knows I’m not insane, or hung-up over a long-dead friend. She knows that I wasn’t obsessing over Jennifer-Rose Middleton all those weeks ago. I cup my face in my hands and sigh, trying to make sense of the whirlwind my life is. Then I stare back at the screen, and read the sign as it moves from left to right like a carousel:
TEENAGE GIRL IN CALIFORNIA IS ALLEGED TO BE FIRST HUMAN CLONE IN THE WORLD