This story is dedicated to Priscilla Perez... Love you, lady!! xox
The Bedtime Story
New York City, Christmas Eve
I heard Charlotte step into the bathroom where I stood at one of the sinks, readying to brush my teeth. Her arms slipped around my waist and I felt the warmth of her cheek against my back.
“She’s asleep?” I asked.
“Finally,” Charlotte replied with a yawn. “And you’re not wearing a shirt.” Her hands trailed along the waistband of my flannel sleep pants, over my stomach, up and around my back, and over my scars. “It’s not fair that you get to look this sexy, and I’m still fat and lumpy.”
“You’re not fat,” I said, holding her arms that held me. “You had a baby nine weeks ago. You’re perfect.”
“Hmph.” She sighed against my back. “I’m sorry I’ve been so tired. Breast-feeding sucks, literally and figuratively.”
I smiled. I knew she didn’t mean that. Not entirely. It had been hard—Lucienne seemed to wake up every two hours and wasn’t showing any signs of stretching that out. Charlotte had told me more than once how close she felt to the baby, and how she loved this time with her. She needed help, but eschewed it out of a sense of duty to the baby. I knew it wasn’t because she was worried I couldn’t handle it; she wouldn’t even let the part-time nanny my mother had insisted on hiring get up with Lucie either. But I also overheard Charlotte tell her own mother over the phone that the only thing she wanted for Christmas was a full night’s sleep. That had been a few weeks ago, and I’d formulated a plan that very day. Tonight was the night to put it into action.
“The doc says you can give her a bottle now,” I said.
“I know,” she sighed. “It just makes me nervous that it’ll wreck the breastfeeding.”
“It won’t wreck it, baby. She’ll still want your boobs.”
Charlotte giggled. “Is that the pediatric term for it?”
“It’s my term for it. I want your boobs but for totally different reasons.”
“Thank you for clarifying that,” she said with a laugh that I felt as a little gust of warm breath against my skin. “That’s why I’m here, actually. Can’t you tell I’m seducing you?”
“Are you now?”
“Yes. It’s been too long, and I’m always too tired, but not tonight.” She planted a kiss on my back, her hands roaming again. “Tonight I’m all yours. For about two hours anyway.”
Her touch raised pleasurable goose bumps of anticipation up my back. I turned around and found her face with both hands to trail my fingers over her soft skin. “Charlotte, you look tired. You are tired. It’s okay. I’m not in any hurry.”
“You’re not hearing me, Lake,” Charlotte said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “I need to get laid. Tonight.” I felt her arms leave my waist, probably so she could plant them on her hips. “Unless you don’t find your lumpy wife attractive anymore—”
I silenced her with a kiss; a real, deep, R-rated kiss that left her breathless.
“Yes, that,” she breathed against my lips. “More of that. You make me forget I’m a tired new mother. You make me feel sexy.”
“You are sexy,” I said, trailing my hands down her sides, feeling the curves of her breasts that were fuller now, her waist that felt softer now. “But I can wait…”
“I can’t,” Charlotte said, and she slipped out of my arms, and out of the bathroom. “But hurry up,” she called. “The window closes quickly nowadays.”
I shook my head, chuckling. God, I loved that woman. Before Lucie I had thought I couldn’t love Charlotte more; that I had reached some sort of tipping point, as infinite as it seemed. But after Lucie, another facet of Charlotte revealed itself and I fell even deeper in love with her as the mother of my child.
I felt around the counter for my toothbrush and toothpaste, and finished the job quickly. My plan was still on—a Christmas present to Charlotte I’d been preparing for weeks—but making love to her first was a nice surprise for me. To say the least.
But when I stepped back into the bedroom, I heard the gentle sounds of my wife’s deep breathing. I grinned and climbed carefully into bed with her. She didn’t stir; she was out cold. I felt for the baby monitor I had moved to my side table earlier that day. Charlotte hadn’t noticed. It was on; a faint static-sound the only noise. For now.
Softly, so as not to wake her, I kissed her shoulder. “Good night, Charlotte,” I whispered, and lay back to wait.
Like clockwork, Lucienne began to stir at what felt like two hours later. I snaked my hand out to shut off the baby monitor like it was an alarm clock and got out bed. I threw on a t-shirt and crept out of the room, remembering to step over the floorboard that creaked at the door. I paused, listening for sounds that Charlotte had woken up. Nothing. I pulled the door almost closed, and felt my way down the hallway to the baby’s room. At the door that was cracked ajar, I took a deep breath.
“All right, Luce. Let’s do this.”
I pushed open the door and made my way to the crib. Lucie was gurgling and cooing, and making all sorts of adorable-as-hell baby noises, but not crying. Not yet.
“Hey, sweet pea,” I murmured over her. “You got me tonight, okay? We’re going to give Mom the night off. Whaddya say?”
Lucie made a noise that I took to mean, “A-okay, father dearest,” and I reached in to lift her up.
I cradled her head with her silken hair—Charlotte said it was dark like mine—and held her to my chest. Lucie smelled like what softness must smell like; and warmth, and everything pure and good in the world. A flush of intense love swept through me to mingle with my nervousness. As with everything else, my other senses were heightened without my sight, and holding Lucie…I could feel the fragility of her little bones, her little body. God, she was so small. I recalled the training Beatrice, the nanny, had given me, mentally preparing myself.
“Can’t be too hard, right?” I murmured against my baby’s ear. “You’re hungry, I heat a bottle, you eat. Bada-bing, bada-boom.”
It sounded so easy, especially for a guy who’d traipsed around Europe alone and migraine-ridden, but that journey seemed almost easy in comparison. Then, I’d had only myself to take care of. Being responsible for this tiny human—keeping her safe at any cost—was far more nerve-wracking.
“We can do this,” I whispered. “Right, Luce? You hungry? Let’s go eat.”
Except that Lucie’s diaper-clad butt under my hand felt much too heavy. Saturated.
“That’s one soggy-ass diaper,” I said, and carefully—so carefully—laid Lucie down on the changing table. “That’s a little wrench in my plans, but I can handle it. But don’t tell your mom I said ass, okay? Our little secret.”
Keeping one hand on her little belly, I felt around the shelf beneath for a diaper and the wipes. Lucie kicked both little legs and squeaked, and a jolt of panic shot through me. I sucked in a breath.
“Whoa, let’s chill, sweet pea,” I said, feeling for the tiny buttons on her onesie, or whatever the hell her jammies were called. “Daddy’s a little bit freaked out as it is.”
But Lucienne was the best baby on the entire goddamn planet. She had all of Charlotte’s patience and not a trace of my short fuse. Lucie settled down; I got her sodden diaper off, and replaced it with a dry one.
“So far so good, right?” I said, cleaning her up. Thank god it was only pee. Thank god.
I was about to close up the new diaper but stopped.
“Oh shit, you need that powder stuff, right?” I felt around for the little bottle on the shelf beneath the changer. “No problem. We got this. And don’t tell your mom I said shit.”
Charlotte was certain Lucie’s first word was going to be a swear word, and I sort of thought she might be right.
I twisted the bottle of baby powder open and then wondered what the hell to do next. I wanted to put some in my palm to get the right amount, but I was afraid to take my hand off Lucie, even for a second. The changing table had rails and the baby was too little even to roll over, but even so. Taking care of her blind was an exercise in paranoia and caution. Since the accident, I’d felt helpless in my blindness too many times to count, but taking care of a newborn baby took it to a whole new level.
I laid my elbow against Lucie’s leg so I could still feel her, and quickly shook some baby powder in my palm. It felt like enough so I brushed my hands over the appropriate area, and then started to close up the diaper.
“Hey, we did it, girl,” I said, and felt for the buttons on her jammies. “Not bad…”
Residual powder flew up my nose and I sneezed into my elbow. I flinched, waiting for Lucie to cry for having been scared, but she laughed instead.
“Oh, you think that’s funny, eh?” I said. “You know what else is funny? That this damn outfit has buttons all the way down to your ankle.”
I buttoned and rebuttoned as Lucie squirmed and kicked, trying to get them to pair up properly. The baby began to fuss just as I got it right—finally—and I cradled her carefully, and bounced her to keep her quiet.
“Let’s not wake up your mom, okay, or else the jig is up.”
Lucie seemed to like being held more than she enjoyed my attempts to button her damn jammies, because she quieted. I held her close again, inhaling. Babies are the best. Fact.
“You’re being a real peach, Luce,” I said, “but I know if we don’t get that bottle soon, it’s all over. Am I right?”
Slowly, I made my way out of her room that Charlotte assured me wasn’t all pink and princesses. It was pale green and yellow, and a lot of cream-colored paint on the wall. The furniture—rocker, dresser, etc—was all out of the way from the door but I moved in slow-motion, cradling Lucienne in one hand and following the wall to the door with the other. I’d walked with her before but it always felt like that relay game you play as a kid with an egg on a spoon, except that the egg is the most precious thing in the world, and dropping it was unthinkable.
The stairs down to the second floor were worse. I’d been living in the townhouse for long enough that I could get around with something close to normal speed. I knew the layout in my mind and usually flew down the stairs. But stairs + baby + blindness= someone’s idea of hell. Or a bad joke. I cradled Lucie tightly in my right arm and gripped the railing in my left hand so hard the wood creaked.
“Whose bright idea was it to put all the bedrooms on the third floor, Luce? Was it yours?”
She made a noncommittal gurgle.
We had the room on the first floor that used to be Charlotte’s back in the day and now was the guestroom. It would never be Lucie’s room. Hell would freeze over before Charlotte or I put our baby all the way down there, so far from us and right near the front door. My paranoia about taking Lucie down the stairs was the price I had to pay. But who was I kidding? I’d be paranoid no matter what.
I made my way like a goddamn slug down to the second floor, and then across to the kitchen. On the way, I smelled the green of our Christmas tree. Charlotte liked to keep the lights on it at night for when she came down here to feed Lucie. She said she loved nothing more than a lit Christmas tree at night, and had done her best to describe it to me once we had it decorated. I imagined the tree lit and glowing, with light reflected softly on the bulbs and stars. My tension eased slightly…until I was confronted with the stove.
Lucie was fidgeting, and making noises that sounded like a warm-up to a full-fledged scream-fest. I knew my lack of speed was already testing her baby patience to the extreme, but the hardest part had yet to come.
I crossed to the fridge and felt around for the little bottle of milk Charlotte had pumped earlier that day. I grabbed it, then moved to the stove where I’d already set up a pot with water in it. Lucie began to fuss in earnest, and I put her up to my shoulder, bouncing, as I felt the Braille stickers on the stove to find the temp I wanted. I put the bottle in the pot and then waited. All that took a helluva lot longer than it should, and I was mentally wearing down already.
I waited, jouncing Lucie lightly. I had no way of knowing if that water in the pot was getting warm, had become too hot, or was doing nothing at all. Lucie’s little cries started to gain some volume and I knew my time was up if I had a prayer of letting Charlotte sleep.
I gingerly felt for the pot, expecting a fiery sting on my fingertips from the burner at any moment. I found the bottle, snatched it out of lukewarm water. That probably meant the milk was still cool, but I’d take my chances.
“Dinner is served, sweet pea. I know a bottle isn’t the same as your mom’s boobs, but then what is? Am I right? Ha, bad joke. Don’t tell her I said that.”
Teeth clenched, I made my way across the obstacle course of a living room. I had it mapped in my head and could navigate it easily alone, but when I reached the couch beside the Christmas tree with Lucie, I felt like I’d run a 10K. With a sigh of relief, I sank onto the couch and settled the baby in the crook of my arm. I gave her the bottle and to my eternal gratitude, she took it without complaint.
“Holy shit, that was exhausting,” I muttered.
Lucie made adorable little sighing noises as she ate, and I wondered if she were falling asleep or staring up at me with her bright eyes. Charlotte had been excited to report they were hazel, like mine.
“You have my eyes, eh, Luce?” I said quietly. “What do you see right now? Or are you falling asleep? Or do you need a song….or a what’s it? A lullaby? I’m not one for singing. How about a story? Would you like a story?”
My daughter made a little noise I took to mean, “A story would hit the spot, O father of mine.”
Except that I wasn’t well versed on kids’ stories. I wracked my brain but all I could come up with was Humpty Dumpty, and a story about a dude falling down and cracking his damn head open wasn’t first on my list. But it did get me thinking about Charlotte, and how, after I’d fallen, she’d been there to put me back together again. More than that: she’d drawn me from the dark and into the light.
I thought for a minute, organizing my thoughts, then quietly told my baby a story.
Once upon a time there was a mean old ogre who lived in a tall castle made entirely of stone. Every last bit of it was made of rock: hard and cold and uninviting. The ogre lived in the tallest tower and never came down, never talked to anyone, and never, EVER, opened the hundreds of black curtains that covered each and every window in that tower.
The ogre lived alone, stewing in anger because, like his castle, he was turning to stone. Bit by bit, piece by piece, his flesh was hardening into rock, and he knew the day would come when he’d wake up and there’d be nothing left of him. Just an ugly old statue in an ugly old castle.
One day, while a storm raged in the sky above, the ogre heard a knock down below, at the front gates of the castle.
“Who in the world could that be?” the ogre wondered. People from the village came to visit him from time to time, but he always roared at them to Go Away, and they always did.
“Go away!” he roared.
“Please,” said a young woman’s voice from the other side of the heavy stone door. “I’m lost and it’s raining out. Might I shelter from the storm for a night? I’m so tired.”
The ogre narrowed his ugly yellow eyes. Usually it only took one “Go away!” to send the villagers scurrying, but this girl was tenacious.
“No!” the ogre yelled. “I said, go aw—”
“How rude!” the girl retorted. “It won’t kill you to open the door for a night.” Her voice softened. “Please. Just for a bit. I’ve been journeying a long time and I’d like a little rest.”
She had a pretty voice, this girl. The ogre opened the door a crack, and saw the most beautiful young woman he’d ever laid his ugly old eyes on. Her own blue eyes widened at the ogre’s ugliness but she didn’t turn away running and screaming like most villagers did.
“One night,” the ogre grunted. “Then you go.”
She nodded. “Thank you.” The girl stepped into the castle. “It’s so dark. Why are all the heavy curtains drawn?”
“None of your business!” the ogre snapped, leading her along the stony corridors. “You have to earn your keep if you want to stay. What can you do?”
“I used to sing,” said the girl, “but I lost my voice.”
“Hmmph,” snarled the ogre. The halls of his castle were so quiet, echoing only with his footfalls and muttered curses. “If you want to stay here, you have to sing. Every day between three and five.”
The girl frowned. “That’s very…specific. But I told you, I can’t sing. I used to quite prettily, but now when I open my mouth, no sound comes out.”
“Try harder,” the ogre said. “You want to stay, you sing.”
“You are ever so rude,” the girl said. “Hasn’t anyone ever taught you any manners?”
“Sing,” the ogre said. “Or go. You’re choice.”
“I’ll try tomorrow,” she said. “Tonight, I will rest.”
The next day between three and five p.m. the girl began to sing. The ogre was back up to his room in the high tower, but he listened to her beautiful voice. The storm did not stop. The ogre did not make her go, and the girl did not leave. Not that first day, nor the next. Or the next. The girl sang and as she did, she merrily tore the curtains off the windows on the lower floors of the castle, letting in more and more sunshine every day.
Up in his room, the ogre noticed that the stone was cracking and falling off his skin, revealing living flesh behind. And not his greenish ogre skin, but healthier, human skin.
“What is happening to me?” the ogre wondered, while the girl sang and tore curtains down one after another, making her way up the many levels of the castle.
Finally, one day, she reached the top. She tore a heavy skein of black material off a window in the hall, singing all the while. The ogre threw open the door to his chamber and he stood, facing the girl.
He blinked in the light of day that hadn’t shone in his castle in years.
She stared at him, and he at her.
“Your singing is very beautiful,” the ogre said.
“Is it?” she replied. “It’s been so long. I thought it was lost forever.” She cocked her head. “You are not the ugly monster I met the first night I came here.”
“Aren’t I?” the ogre asked. “I can’t see myself.”
“I see you,” said the singer.
“I hear you,” said the ogre.
The girl smiled and offered her hand. The ogre took it and followed her through is castle in which sunlight streamed in from every window. She led him outside, into the fresh air for the first time in years.
“The storm is over,” the girl said. “Thank you for letting me stay.”
“The storm is over,” the ogre said. “I don’t want you to leave.”
And she didn’t, and they lived happily ever after.
“The end,” I murmured to Lucienne. The bottle fell easily from her mouth and I knew she was sleeping. “What did you think of that one, Luce?” I smiled to myself. “Yeah, I kinda like it too.”
Carefully, I lifted Lucie to my shoulder and patted her back.
“Don’t barf on me, now,” I muttered. “I forgot a burp cloth. But hey, I think overall, we did pretty good, didn’t we, sweetpea?”
My eyes felt heavy and the darkness I lived in became the dark of sleep.
I bolted up right in bed, gasping and staring around the bedroom. Something was wrong. Totally wrong. Sunlight was streaming into the room from the window. How was that possible? It was ten at night when I’d put the moves on Noah…
“And instead I fell asleep,” I muttered, shaking my head. Disappointment bit at me. Noah was so good; he didn’t complain an iota, but I missed the intimacy between us. Moreover, I needed it.
But that didn’t change the fact that something was off. I felt good. Better than good. The dull haze of exhaustion that had hovered around me since Lucienne was born was gone. I felt sharp. I felt rested.
I glanced at the alarm clock on the end table. Seven o’clock.
“Nine hours,” I said, marveling. “I slept for nine hours.”
I looked to the empty space on the bed beside me, and a slow smile spread over my face. God, he’s amazing. Beyond amazing. He’s the most incredible man I’ve ever known. I’d already had a similar thought a thousand times since I’d met Noah, but now that we had Lucie, his tenacity and courage only increased, impossible though that seemed.
I threw off the covers to go find my family.
They weren’t in Lucie’s room, so I headed downstairs. The sight that greeted me made my heart feel warm in my chest and tears came to my eyes.
Noah was sitting up on the couch, his head thrown back, lost to sleep. In his arms, he clutched our daughter protectively. Her chubby little cheek was pillowed against his chest, her tiny hands balled into fists. On the coffee table was an almost-empty bottle of breast milk.
I pressed my hand to my lips, shaking my head. My husband, my Noah…My heart felt heavy in the best possible way; full of love for him and our baby he held so protectively, even in sleep.
I gently touched his shoulder.
His eyes opened, unfocused and a little shadowed from weariness. “Charlotte?”
“Hey, honey.” I sat beside him on the couch. “Long night?”
Noah held Lucie closer, pressing his lips to her little forehead. “Nah,” he whispered. “We had a blast. She sleeping?”
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” I said with a smile. “Or just you, working your magic. Let me take her and put her to bed, and then I want to put you to bed.”
“Yes, please,” Noah said with a tired grin, then carefully handed the sleeping baby over to me. He touched Lucie’s face to find her cheek and then kissed her there. “Love you, sweet pea.”
We went upstairs, Noah to our room, me to Lucie’s. I gave her a kiss and laid her down in her crib and she slept on, sighing softly. I turned to leave but closed my eyes instead. I tried to imagine taking her out of her crib, changing her diaper; just holding her safely as I navigated stairs and stoves, all in this darkness.
“Your daddy is incredible,” I whispered to Lucie. “But I think you know that.”
Back at our room, I stepped on the creaky floorboard and Noah, lying on the bed, raised his head and opened his eyes.
“I thought you might be asleep,” I said.
“Nope, but I have a greater appreciation of what you go through every night.”
“By choice,” I said, lying down beside him, sharing a pillow. “I’ve got new-mom-itis. I’m tired as hell but I feel like I need to do everything.”
“I know, babe,” Noah said. “You’re doing an amazing job.”
“And so are you. How long have you been preparing for tonight?”
Noah grinned. “Me? Prepare? Nah, I just wing it.”
I didn’t smile back. I lay face to face with him and held his handsome face in my hands. “I’m sorry I didn’t let you help me. I trust you with our lives, you know that, right?”
“I do, baby.”
“Thank you for the sleep,” I said. “Thank you for you.”
I kissed him then, deeply, savoring the taste and smell and closeness of him. Since the baby and before, these moments had been rare, and my body hadn’t been my own. Now, I pulled Noah over me, and the weight of him was exquisite. Our kisses turned harder, more needy, and we both worked to get the other naked.
Skin to skin, I sighed, as Noah laid kisses down my neck, his hands roaming and exploring, and I did the same, getting reacquainted with his body that was the epitome of what masculine was to me: strong and hard and powerful, but warm too, and containing the heart of a truly good man.
“I’ve missed this,” I whispered, my hands dancing up and down the smooth and scarred skin of his back. “Do I feel the same to you?”
“No,” he breathed. “You’re more beautiful.” He propped himself on his arms over me, his hands in my hair. “You’re everything to me. God, Charlotte...I’ll never stop wanting you, loving you…”
I arched my back slightly as we were joined, and then sighed at the perfect heaviness of him over me and inside me that felt so perfect and right. I held him close for a moment, my lips brushing his ear.
“I love you, Noah.”
I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell him everything I felt for him but it was impossible. There wasn’t enough music in the world for me to express what he was to me, and he couldn’t read it in my eyes. So I held him and kissed him, and gave myself up to him, calling my love to the surface, to my skin so he felt it in my touch, and I breathed it into the air for him to take, as we moved.
The crescendo rose and fell, and our breaths followed after, and still I held him. Eventually, he raised his head from the crook of my neck, a smile gracing his lips.
“If this is what happens when you’re rested, I’m going to get up with baby every night.”
I laughed lightly. “Then you’ll be the zombie. Let’s share. I think Lucienne would prefer that.” I brushed the hair from his beautiful eyes. “Thank you for my Christmas present.”
The baby monitor chirped; Lucie woke and began to coo.
“And for this life,” I said. “For all of it.”
Noah lowered his lips to mine. “Merry Christmas, baby.”
“Merry Christmas, Noah.”
On the monitor, Lucie squawked impatiently, and we laughed, and rose to get her, together.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all. I hope 2016 brings you love, happiness, and joy to last the year and beyond. You guys have given me more than I can ever repay, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.