"You sure you don't want to come to dinner with me?"
I look up from my book to see my Dad enter the room from the small hallway, struggling with his tie.
"With your old friends and colleagues? No, I don't think so." I sit up and place my book next to me on the couch.
"Need any help?" I chuckle as I watch him loosen the crooked knot he just made.
"Yes, please." he shoots me a helpless glance as he pulls the fabric from his neck, holding it in my direction. I get up and take it from him before I step closer and fold up his shirt collar.
"One won't believe you need to wear a tie every day at work." I smirk as I slide the tie around his neck and start tying it.
"I manage but I know you do it better than me." he winks at me as I finalize the knot.
"Liar!" I laugh at him, stepping back as he joins in my laughter.
"So, I really can't persuade you to join me for dinner?" he asks once more as he brings his collar back in order.
"No, Dad. They are your friends. I'd feel out of place there." I smile as I shake my head.
"But they all remember you from when you were a little girl, playing hide and seek in my office. You were this tall." he smiles as he gestures with his hand just below his hip.
"Well, I wouldn't want to spoil their memories. And besides I need to pick up Grace at Peter's in an hour. I'm sorry she was with him during the weekend but I didn't want to mess up her routine and she loves spending time with him." I shrug my shoulders.
"Don't mention it, pumpkin. I've spent enough time with her and it was nice to catch up with Peter too as I joined them on their walk yesterday afternoon. He loves Grace very much and you too." he states in a low voice before he turns to pick up his jacket from a nearby chair.
"Dad!" I sigh, letting myself fall back on the couch, folding my arms in front of me.
"You need to hear this as he won't tell you himself." I feel his stare at me as I look to the floor.
"But he told you?" I snap, angrily peering up at him.
"No, but it's obvious to anyone but you. What happened, Alicia? You were so happy when you visited me back then. You never said it, but I could tell you were in love with him."
"Well, then you knew more than I did, Dad. I have no idea what I felt for Peter then and neither do I know what I feel now." I nearly shout, wanting to end this discussion.
"That's a shame, pumpkin." he sighs and I feel his glance upon me once more.
"Don't you have to leave?" I growl impatiently, getting up from my seat.
"Well, if you don't then I will." I state as he stays silent and walk from the room to put on my shoes and grab my bag in the hall.
A minute later I'm in the elevator, riding down. I lean against the wall, taking a deep breath as my mind replays what just happened. I can't remember the last time I had a fight with my Dad. He's always the one who understands me, unlike my mother who I constantly fight with over the smallest things. I step out of the elevator and walk through the entrance hall. Once outside the fresh air hits me and with it the realization hat he didn't fight with me but was merely stating his opinion. An opinion I didn't want to hear because I'm still refusing to deal with my mixed emotions towards Peter. I take a few deep breaths before I walk along the street to my car and get in. My glance falls on the clock in the dashboard and I realize that I'm way too early to get Grace from Peter. I start the car anyway and drive off, in an attempt to clear my head. I decide to drive a longer way to Peter's apartment, my Dad's words still circling in my mind.
I try to think back to those first months after Peter and I started dating but it seems like more than a lifetime away; the hurt and disappointment that turned my world upside down overshadowing everything that happened before. All I seem to remember is a feeling of security when I was with him and that it felt right. But does this equal love? I try to shake the thoughts from my mind as I pull into a parking space opposite Peter's apartment building. I'm still half an hour too early, so I decide to get out of the car and walk down to the small park that's just a block from here. I soon walk down a small path, bordered by trees that finally start to bloom. I walk a little further to the small play-ground in the middle of the park and sit down on a bench. I watch a family with two young kids gather their belongings, the father taking the girl, who is around Grace's age, from the sand box into her stroller. The little one doesn't seem to agree as she starts crying and kicking her little feet against her fathers legs when he tries to strap her into the buggy. A faint smile spreads on my lips as I know this situation far too well. The dad kneels down in front of the girl, trying to calm her down and though I can't hear what he's saying I bet he's promising her a treat if she behaves and they can go home. I chuckle low as I have referred to that method myself more than once. I watch the family leave, the parents holding hands as they follow their son who's pushing the stroller with his little sister. I feel a sting in my heart as I see them share a kiss and hurry to turn my head away.
I stay in my seat for a while trying not to think of what I just felt, but the image of that family stays with me and I catch myself imagining being the mother and Grace the little girl, remembering that I once envisioned Peter and myself as a family. I close my eyes and push the thoughts away before I get up fast. I shake my head at myself as my glance falls on another couple with a stroller, approaching the play-ground from the opposite side. It doesn't take me long to realize it's Peter with Grace and a woman I have never seen before. I sit back down on the bench, hoping they stay on the path on the other side as for some reason I don't want them to see me. I grab my phone from my coat pocket, lowering my glance on the device while I continue to watch them through my eyelashes.
The woman is a bit taller than I am with light-brown, curly hair, which she has tied up in a pony-tail. She is pushing the stroller while Peter has his arm around her shoulder. I swallow hard at that sight, a knot forming in my stomach. I try to shake it as I turn away from them when they pass by me, heading towards Peter's apartment. Luckily they are so immersed in their conversation that they don't look in my direction. I wait until I can't hear their laughter anymore and get up to follow them at a distance.
I'm glad that they never look back as I walk about 50 feet behind them, watching them cross the street and come to a halt in front of the building Peter lives in, from the shelter of an opposite entrance. Peter's arm remained around the woman's shoulder the whole time and that sight did nothing to loosen the knot in my stomach. I retreat deeper into the entrance as they hug and Peter's glance wanders to the other side of the street. I briefly wonder why I am hiding from them, but somehow I can't bring myself to step forward, crossing the street and meet them. Something is holding me back from learning who that woman is and the nature of their relationship. I watch them loosen the embrace, but none of them is stepping back, her head tilted backwards to look up at him, smiling. Peter bends forward and they kiss briefly before he steps away from her. I close my eyes, trying to make sense of what I just saw. It's been just a brief peck, one that good friends might share, but something tells me there is more to their relationship than just friends. From the short time I've watched them, they seem too close, too at ease with one another to just be friends. My mind comes up with several possible explanations while I try to fight down the feeling of jealousy rising up my throat like acid. I swallow hard, knowing I have no right to think like that, but the thought that Peter might have moved on stings painfully at my heart. I turn away from them, not wanting to see any more than I already have. I realize my hands are clenched to fists and I'm gulping down air as if I'm close to drowning. I'm pressed with my back to the wall and I feel my knees tremble so I let myself slide down to the floor. I sit there on the cold concrete, for I don't know how long, my mind still circling around the jealousy that seems to pulsate through my whole body.
"Are you okay, Miss?"
The words startle me and I look up to see an old man watching me worried.
"Yes, I think… I am." I stammer as I peel myself from the floor. "I just felt a bit dizzy, so I sat down. But I'm fine now. Thank you." I flash him a half-smile before I turn and walk towards my car, my glance wandering over the other side of the street but the place where I saw Peter and his company is deserted.
I slide inside my car, contemplating to just drive home but I can't leave without Grace. But I'm in no state to face Peter either, what a quick look into the mirror in the sun shade confirms. My eyes are red and puffy like if I've cried though I can't remember shedding any tears. I just feel a big lump in my throat. I close my eyes and lean back against the headrest but the pictures of what I just saw swim before my inner eye and so I open them fast again. The rational part of my brain tells me I have no right to feel the way I do, no right to begrudge him his happiness. Not after the way I treated him, making it clear more than once that I don't see more in him than just a friend. But if that's the truth, that he's not more to me than a friend, why do I still feel like I want to punch that woman who was with Peter? Realization hits me like a slap when suddenly all puzzle pieces fall into place: I'm in love with Peter.
At once everything makes sense and I understand that I loved him since I laid eyes on him for the first time. It's the reason his memory stayed with me throughout the years though our brief meeting would've qualified to be forgotten within weeks, but even nearly a decade later I could remember his features, the color of his eyes and the feel of his lips against mine as I had kissed him goodbye.
Why didn't I realize it? Why did I keep waiting to fall in love with him when it should've been clear to me that I already loved him with every shared touch and kiss that always stayed with me long after the contact was broken. For a fleeting second I feel happy and relieved for finally knowing in my mind what my heart seemed to knew all along. But then the images I witnessed just minutes ago force themselves into my focus again and a powerful sadness takes a hold of me as I realize I'm too late. Peter moved on, something I wasn't capable of though I didn't knew why. Suddenly I feel angry at myself, so angry that I punch my fist against the dashboard, but all I gain from that are aching knuckles. I bite my lip in an attempt to hold the tears back that burn in my eyes but it doesn't keep them from falling. I no longer fight them as I think about how much sadness I could've spared myself from if I had realized my true feelings for Peter sooner.
The ring of my cellphone jerks me from my thoughts and I get it out of my purse. I gasp as I see Peter's number on the display, clearing my throat several times before I answer it.
"Hey." I greet him, hoping he can't hear the tremor in my voice.
"Hi, I just wanted to know where you are. You said you'd pick up Grace by 7pm." he states and my eyes find the clock, realizing it's nearly 7:30 pm.
"I'm sorry. I'll be there in a minute. I just parked, okay?" I hurry to say, flipping down the sunshade once more to check my puffy eyes.
"Sure." he answers but I hang up before he can say anymore. I try to eliminate the traces of my tears, hoping he won't notice them before I step out of the car to get my daughter.
I cross the street and as I look up towards the door I see Peter coming towards me, holding Grace in his arms.
"Hey, I thought I'd meet you down here. I have to be at my mother's in 20 minutes." he smiles apologetically at me as he hands me Grace.
"No problem. I'm sorry I'm late." I try to smile back, avoiding to look at him directly, or touch his hands, which seems impossible as I take Grace into my arms. Our fingers brush and the tingling seems to shoot right to my heart. I gasp soundlessly, pulling Grace towards me, so he can let go off her.
"Then I won't keep you any longer. Enjoy your night." I hastily say, reaching for the diaper bag that he has put on the sidewalk.
"Let me help you with that." he states, taking the bag from me, again brushing against my fingertips.
"It's okay, Peter. I can manage." I snap, dragging the bag from him, forcing him to let go, breaking the contact of our hands. But it's no use as I still feel his touch burning on my skin. I briefly wonder if he still feels the tingling too or if it stopped now for him that he moved on.
"Okay." he backs away, clearly sensing my uneasiness. "Say Hi to Richard from me and I'll see you both Tuesday for your birthday, princess." he lifts his hand to caress Grace's cheek, smiling at her.
"Yeah, Tuesday around 5pm. See you then Peter. Bye." I turn and hurry over the street to my car, repressing the urge to look around to see if he watches us. I'm sure he doesn't but I know the certainty would be too much.
I'm glad my Dad is out for the evening as I get home half an hour later. I place Grace in her play-pen and sit down on the couch. My head is spinning with what happened in the last two hours and all I want is to curl up under the covers of my bed, hoping I will wake not remembering any of it. But I can't do that. My glance falls on Grace, who's happily throwing her toys around. I get up, stroking Grace's head in passing as I head to my bedroom and from there to the adjacent bathroom. I start the water in the bathtub and head outside again to get Grace, taking her to her room to undress her. She loves taking baths and I hope spending some time with her will take my mind from Peter, but once more I'm reminded how much she looks like him as I take her from the changing table and she laughs at me. I hold her closely to my chest, blinking away some tears. I walk back into my bedroom and my glance falls on the pictures of my dresser. I lay Grace down on my bed and walk over to the furniture, taking the picture of Peter holding Grace in the park near my father's house, from it. I sit down on the bed, looking at the picture, no longer able to hold back the tears. I feel Grace crawling up next to me and I place her on my lap. She reaches for the frame with her little hands, babbling something only she knows the meaning to.
"Dadda…Dadda…" she suddenly says, patting her fingers against Peter's image in my hands.
"What did you just say, sweetie?" I watch her closely and she turns her head towards me, still pressing her hand against the picture.
"Dadda!" she exclaims again, now looking at the photo.
"Yeah, that's your Daddy." I tell her, lowering the picture to the bed and press her against my chest. She finally said her first word and as much as I have wished during the last weeks to be there when she says it, naturally hoping it would be 'Mommy', the more I wish now I hadn't heard it. Only a few hours ago I would've reached for the phone to call Peter and tell him about it, maybe trying to have Grace repeat it over the phone but now even thinking about hearing his voice hurts too much. Not to mention that I undoubtedly would disturb him at his dinner. I didn't believe for a second he was headed to his mother when he told me that earlier. I'm sure he's with her, the woman I saw him with. Jealousy rises inside me again as the image of them in front of Peter's apartment appears before my inner eye and I swallow hard but the bitter taste stays in my mouth. Suddenly I don't feel like taking a bath any longer. I go over and shut off the water before I get Grace and myself ready for bed. The last thing I do before I curl up under the covers with Grace in my arms, is putting Peter's picture to the bottom of the lowest drawer in my nightstand, wishing I could shelf the images in my head just as easily.