"Are you nervous?"
I tried to sound convincing and squeezed Martina's hand a bit, but it was mostly to comfort myself.
"That's good. Dad promised not to punch you today," she said with a giggle, and I awkwardly giggled back.
"Just be yourself and you'll be fine. They'll love you once they get to know you."
I didn't comment on that. I just forced my feet to take one step after the other in the direction of their house, and struggled hard to suppress my urge to flee. My cheek still hurt from last time we were here, and the black eye he gave me was exactly that. Black. And blue and purple, and if you looked closer, you could even see a hint of an ugly greenish yellow...
"Baby? Did you hear me?"
Martina snapped her fingers in front of me to get my attention.
"I was thinking about when I should bring my things to San Francisco. Maybe we should..."
"We'll find a house first. Maybe next week," I stated promptly and without hesitation. I mean, that was just logical anyway. It was totally unnecessary to move them twice.
The happiness glowed in her eyes when she looked at me. But before she could say anything more, I'd moved on to the next topic.
"Are these Hyacinths?" I asked, almost in the same exhale, and her eager brown eyes changed with confusion. I stopped and pointed at a random plant next to the alley that led to the main door.
"Uhh... I think they're called Hydrangea. Why?"
I didn't know why. I just needed a couple of seconds more to man up.
And guessing types of flowers was the manliest thing you could think of? Dumbass.
"Uhh. I just wanted to sound smart."
She doesn't need to know that Hyacinths are the only kind of garden plant you know the name of, so don't say a word.
Martina giggled adorably.
"Maybe we should grow some in our own garden, then?" she suggested with a warm smile, and I instantly started to envision her and our little princess sitting on their knees while planting several kinds of flowers. I smiled dreamily.
"Are you coming?" she asked after a few moments where I didn't say anything, and she gently pulled at my hand.
But we didn't get much closer before I found another distraction.
"Oh! I think I saw something!" I exclaimed, and Martina tried to look in the same direction as I did.
"I don't know. It was super fast, and... And it went behind the... The... Or under the... Oh, spikes! Are there hedgehogs here?"
"Hedgehogs? But they're not especially fast moving," she pointed out with a frown, and now her eyes scanned me and not the bushes.
"Really? I thought they were fast. Like the tortoise and the rabbit, where the tortoise pulls up his shell and just leaps off."
Martina laughed and shook her head in disbelief.
"So you think hedgies do the same? They gather their spikes and run?"
"Yeah?" I said stupidly, grasping whatever I could, to get some extra time to just stand there and fill up their alley with... Me.
"You silly man," she smiled, and pulled my hand again. But my feet were glued to the ground.
"Are you coming?" she asked, and I swear that I was moving in my head. My body just didn't want to listen.
"Yup," I said, and tried to sound cool as an owl.
Owls are cool, Aaron. They're just sitting there with large eyes, and let the world fly by without bothering to move a feather. You, on the other hand, are more like a dumb seagull.
"Uhm... Sorry. I had to take a moment to say my prayers."
Martina threw her head back with laughter, squeezed her eyes shut and wrinkled her nose.
"...and now I remember that I'm not religious, so that was a waste of time," I finished, and she laughed even more.
"Come on, you dork. You don't need any prayers. You've got me. I'm your pitbull, remember?"
"More like a pitpoodle," I mumbled under my breath, and she scoffed.
"But you are! You're a lot cuter than a ferocious, blood thirsty fighting dog, and..."
"Martina?" we heard someone yell, and our attention was drawn to a woman who was standing in the doorway to their house.
"Coming mom!" Martina yelled back and waved at her.
"Now, will you stop hallucinating and join us for dinner, or do you prefer snails together with your pretend spiky friends?"
"Snails? Hedgehogs eat snails? I thought they ate grass and leaves?"
"And snails, worms and bugs they find on the ground," she informed me matter of factly.
She pulled at my hand one last time, and my feet finally decided to cooperate. Only, they moved away from the house.
"Where are you going?"
"One sec," I said, and sneaked behind a bush. There I grabbed a handful of flowers that I hid behind my back, until we stood face to face with a woman who looked so much like my girlfriend that I almost laughed.
"Hyacinths for a beautiful lady," I said, and gave them to her while I made a solemn courtesy. Both her and Martina giggled, and I could see them exchange looks.
"That's the only flower he knows, so play along, mom," I heard from the female who was still holding my hand, and I turned to her with a startled expression. Then I turned back to the smiling woman with the bouquet, who now reached out to greet me.
"Okay, then. Thank you for the Hyacinths... Aaron, was it?"
I nodded and smiled nervously while I carefully shook her hand.
"I'm Noor. Nice to meet you."
Then she turned and signed for us to follow her inside.
"How'd you know?" I whispered to Martina, and she laughed.
"Just a wild guess. Because those are violets."
Her mother did her best trying not to laugh, and camouflaged her smile pretending to smell the flowers. Neither of us cared that she knew they came from her own garden. It's the thought that counts and it worked well as an ice-breaker, because the awkwardness I was expecting was replaced by humorous remarks and easy smalltalk.
Naturally, the pregnancy became the main topic, and Noor shed a few tears while patting Martina's baby bump. It was actually incredible that she'd managed to keep it a secret for so long, because it was pretty obvious.
I suddenly felt someone tapping my shoulder and clear their throat, and turned to face...
"I think I owe you an apology, Mr. Cooper."
Martina's father looked entirely different now that he wasn't mad anymore, and he seemed sincerely regretful about our previous encounter. He reached out his hand to greet me, and I could see him study my black eye for a moment while we shook hands.
"I'm Riccardo Sanchez, and I'd appreciate if we could start all over again."
"Certainly, sir. But please call me Aaron," I smiled politely, although I was still a bit nervous. But the way Noor was hugging her daughter's shoulders while she looked at us with a warm smile, made me relax.
"And you should call me Riccardo."
"Argh, don't be so formal Ricky," his wife scoffed, and rolled her eyes exactly the way Martina used to do.
"Or... Rick," he finished and looked down, almost a bit bashful.
"I hope you're hungry, because she's tripled her recipe again," he mumbled, and I wasn't sure if it was to keep his wife from hearing it, or to include me in something that clearly was an inside joke.
"I heard that," she grumbled, and Riccardo chuckled. Oh, yeah. Definitely an inside joke. And I appreciated it even though I didn't say anything. I was even more grateful when we sat down at the table, and every trace of tension or weirdness was washed away by the easy tone that flew between them. They were giggling and teasing, then talked about more serious matters, before they ended up with another laugh in one way or another.
So this is how it should be, huh? No one is arguing or scowling at each other. There are no icy silence where you're just waiting for the next outburst over something as small as someone dropping their fork or sneezing. This is how a normal family should be, smiling and looking at each other with love instead of resentment. Strange.
"So, I hear that you're a musician?" Riccardo asked, after swallowing a piece of perfectly seasoned, juicy and mouth-watering roast. I could see where Martina got her cooking skills from, because everything tasted amazing. The oven baked potatoes with butter and cheese, the gravy and the vegetables. I don't know how, but somehow broccoli suddenly tasted good enough to be a whole meal, and I wasn't really a fan of broccoli to begin with. If that's not magic, then I don't know what is.
"Yeah. Or, I was. I played in a band called Empty Streets."
"Really?" he asked with genuine interest. "What kind of music did you play?"
"Punk rock for the most part. We did some good covers and almost got signed by a record company."
"Yeah. The drummer died in a car accident the day before we were supposed to sign the contract, and..."
Stop, you idiot! You can't tell him that your music career was ruined because you had to marry some bitch you knocked up. Then you'll have to explain how you didn't actually knock her up, since Rocco isn't your son after all, and you'll have to face several hours of questions and explanations, before you spend the rest of the night on the ER waiting room after giving the poor guy a mental breakdown. Naw. Skip that.
"No, that's it."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear, though."
"Yeah, it was quite a shock."
We finished our meal, and I joined Riccardo in the living room where he opened a little bar that was hidden inside something that looked like a giant antique globe. It was pretty cool.
"Cognac?" he asked and held up an expensive looking bottle, but I made a tiny grimace without being impolite in any way.
"No, thanks. I'm more a whiskey type of man."
He raised his bushy eyebrows and looked over the rim of his glasses, while he poured himself a glass of cognac.
"Yeah. My favorite is Doom's, but I don't think you can buy it here. They only sell it in the LA and San Francisco area, as far as I know."
"Probably. I've never heard of it."
He found a bottle of Tennessee whiskey, and poured me a glass. Then we made a little toast and took the first sip.
"You're gonna convert to whiskey yourself when you taste it. I'll send you a couple of bottles."
"Sounds good. I'm curious."
I hissed lowly as the heavy oak, vanilla and spicy liquid coated my throat, and I tried to remember last time I drank. I came out empty. Was I really so whipped that I'd quit drinking? Pff. Never. I just kind of forgot when it was. Yeah. That's it.
Eating pussy does that to you, Aaron. You don't need alcohol when you can drink Martina's sweet nectar. Fuck! Don't think about that in front of her dad!
"What do you do for a living?"
"I'm an architect at Unlimited Lines Inc. Lame name, but the business is great and the salary, too."
Which probably is because your boss is one of your best friends, but whatever.
"Architect? I am too! What a coincidence," he exclaimed. And with that our conversation turned into eager comparisons of different projects we'd been involved in, and I realized that I actually knew of several of the buildings and constructions he'd participated in creating. And vice versa.
I liked talking to Riccardo. He didn't interrogate me like I thought he would. We simply talked like equal individuals, and the conversation was easy. It was a nice way to get to know each other. He told me about his hobbies and that he loved fishing. He even invited me to join him some time.
There was an unwritten rule for evenings like this. Something I barely remembered since it was so long ago; the expected event of going through old pictures when visiting the in laws, which in this case consisted of several albums of Martina as a baby, a toddler, and pretty much every year of her childhood and up to today. And believe me; there were a lot! But that's probably how it was to be a lonely child with two parents who adored you. And comparing this to the only relationship I'd had was just stupid since it was with Bree. My own family wasn't really that much better.
At first Martina was annoyed at her mother for showing them to me. Then she turned giggly and rosy cheeked when I whispered compliments about how cute she was, and that I was almost certain that our baby would look like her. I also added a few more perverted comments under my breath, and she slapped my arm with a horrified glare, scared that her parents heard. Of course they didn't. I made sure of that, because this was probably the first time I actually cared what people thought about me. For once, I wanted to act decent and give a nice impression.
After a couple of drinks more and a tasty apple pie with homemade vanilla ice-cream, I excused myself to use the restroom. I felt the pleasant, warm effect of the alcohol, but mostly I was elated by how great the evening had been. I didn't even realize how late it was until I checked my wristwatch.
"10:39 pm," I said to myself, and smiled into the mirror. I looked happy. I felt happy. Heck, I'd never felt better in my life. And when I passed the kitchen on my way to the living room, I heard a hushed conversation between Martina and her mother that made my chest swell.
"...a really charming man," Noor said quietly and giggled. She'd had a couple of glasses of wine, but hey... Alcohol might make you do dumb shit, but at least you stop trying to be smart and sugarcoat things by lying. I'd obviously not scared her.
"And handsome, too."
"Mom!" Martina hissed, but I could literally hear in her voice that she was smiling.
"But I don't know about his tattoos, though. They make him look a bit of a bad boy."
"I know," Martina said dreamily, clearly more affectionate about it than her mother, and I was pretty sure she remembered how mesmerized she was the first time she studied them up close. At least I did. The way her brown eyes had sparkled with curiosity and her mouth formed a tiny 'o' in awe. Then the way she giggled when I told her the story behind some of them.
"He makes me feel so special. I can't really explain it. It just feels so right."
"I can understand that now. The way he looks at you... And you at him, too. You two are exactly how your father and I were after we met, and you've kind of started your relationship the same way we did. When are you going to get married?"
"Mom! I just got divorced. Besides, we haven't really talked about that. I..."
There was a little pause, and I heard a change in Martina's voice that confused me.
"I don't think he wants to get married."
"Why do you think that?"
"It's a long story, mom. But I understand him, and it's not like people have to get married just because they have a child together nowadays."
I swallowed. Why did this bother me? What she said was right. I didn't want to get married. I'd repeated it to myself so many times, that I knew nothing was going to change that. Then why was I starting to doubt that decision? That was... No. Just no.
"You're right, but you know..."
"Mom, please. I don't wanna talk about it. I just know that I need him in my life, and it feels like he needs me in his as well. That's enough for me."
There was a sigh, and I didn't know if it was from Martina or her mother. But when the person spoke up, I knew it was Noor, and that the sigh probably was the result of a hug.
"I'm happy for you, sweetie. It's just that you're my only baby, and it tears me apart that you're moving so far away."
Her voice was loaded with emotions, and I could easily envision how Martina tried to comfort her.
"I know, mom. But we'll visit often, and you can come to San Francisco and stay with us. We're buying a house right outside the city."
"You are? Oh, my gosh! That so romantic. That's just like..."
"...you and dad, yes. I know," Martina groaned. Then she giggled.
"I'll be fine, mom. And the baby too, as long as we can be with him."
There was a moment of silence again, before Noor ended the conversation with a warning that sounded too cute to be especially threatening.
"He better take good care of you, or else he'll end up with more than just a black eye."
I chuckled to myself.
"Of course I'll take care of her. Now that I've seen how a real family should be, I'll protect mine with my life," I whispered to no one. Then I went back into the living room and continued my conversation with the man who was turning into a new and very good friend of mine.