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November 30, age 31, turning 32
"Come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm."
-- Bob Dylan
It’s been hard being “just friends” with Sebastian Haepst. My “idea” of him wasn’t too far from reality. But the “power couple,” as his musician friends call Sebastian and Gwen, seem still to be going strong.
Although, about a month ago, Sebastian was driving me home after watching Magnusson play at Potter’s House; I didn’t live far from Seb. Gwen was out of town, on vacation with her family.
“Ginnie, can I ask you something?”
My feet were on the dashboard, and my arms were tucked around me. He failed to notice I was cold.
“It’s about Gwen and me.”
My heart stopped.
“There’s nothing wrong with Gwen.”
My ears perked.
“She’s beautiful and smart and funny.”
I held my breath.
“She’s great.” He paused.
“Yep, she’s great,” I mimicked. “So…? What’s the problem?”
“We’ve been fighting a lot. And…I don’t know.”
“Okay. What have you been fighting about?”
“Little things. Stupid little things. She got mad at how I ate my sandwich the other day. And then I argued with her over the best way to get somewhere. Just things that don’t matter.”
I rubbed my cheek. My window had fogged, so I cleared it with the sleeve of my bomber jacket. On the other side of the glass, the yellow line snaked back and forth. I rolled my eyes to the ceiling of the car.
“From what I can see,” I said, “you two are good for each other. She cares for you, yeah?”
A beat. “Yeah.”
“Does she make you want to be a better person?”
He threw me a withering look. “Yeah, guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“If I knew you were gonna get hokey about it….” He grinned.
“Maybe. But – do you like yourself when you’re with her?”
“Sometimes.” He wiped at his nose.
“More times than not?”
“Do you love each other? And I don’t mean, are you in love with each other. I mean, do you genuinely love each other?”
He quirked his lips. “What’s the difference?”
I wormed my hands into the pockets of my jacket and studied the soft denim of my jeans – the threads running diagonally, stretched over my knees. “Being in love is a feeling. Love is something you do. Like, even if you’re mad at someone, you still hold an umbrella over her head when it’s raining. Or fixing her a to-go cup of coffee when she’s running late.”
A warm smile spread over his face --
this was the first time I heard his smile, the hum that no one else believes I hear, though I didn’t realize it at the time --
I swallowed hard.
“Yeah. Gwen and I love each other.”
I smashed my lips together, nodded and twisted my head to watch the houses pass.
Tonight I sit next to Seb in the coffee shop; he and I are hanging out with some friends. Gwen isn’t here. “She’s working late tonight. Her office has some sort of charity thing this week. She wanted to start setting up for that,” Seb says.
I sit next to Sebastian because I don’t know the other people as well, and none of the Magnussons are here. Sebastian smells of pine. His long hands lay clasped in his lap and his torso curves against the back of his chair, his waist meeting the lip of the small seat. One ankle is crossed casually over the opposite knee. He and one of the other guys are discussing famous musicians or maybe they have moved on to swords, but at one point in this conversation, Seb’s eyebrows draw together, his lips purse and he cocks his head.
I gasp audibly.
“What?” Sebastian turns to me with a wary smile, while the other guy joins another conversation going on at the table.
“Nothing.” Seb isn’t buying that. “I just had an ‘I see the boy I knew in the man that stands before me’ moment.”
“Okay, one – I love that movie. But don't tell anyone. And two – what are you talking about?”
I sigh and grip the sides of my seat. “It’s my favorite movie,” I say feeling the heat pinking the skin of my neck. “And: you still make that face. It’s that look you made when you were a kid that said, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m right, but I don’t want to make you feel bad for being wrong.’ I remember that look very well.”
He makes the face again, and I laugh.
I pull my buzzing phone from my pocket. The caller id flashes Helena Haepst; she is probably calling about the birthday party for her sister I am helping her plan. “Your mom,” I say to Sebastian.
“I’m not here,” he says. “Not dragging me into that party planning mess.”
I snort before answering.
“Hey, Ginnie.” Helena’s voice is at a higher pitch. “Is Sebastian with you?”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“It’s John,” she says. There is a pause, empty air. “He’s had a seizure. The doctor doesn’t know what caused it. He’s fairly stable now,” her voice shakes at the end, “but they’ve admitted him to ICU. I can’t seem to get through to Seb on his phone.”
“Okay. Hold on.”
I hold the phone in my hand covering the mouthpiece.
“Seb.” I lean closer to him. “You’re mom’s been trying to get hold of you.”
He feels in his pockets. “Damn. Must have left my phone at home." He seems more upset about this fact than the situation warrants. "What’s she need?”
I wrestle with whether or not to tell him or let his mom give him the news regarding his father. Back and forth I consider the choices. One. The other. Tell him. It’s a family matter, so keep it that way. Hearing bad news in person is better than hearing it over the phone.
“Your dad’s in the hospital. He had a seizure. They don’t know what caused it, but they have him in ICU.”
Trying to make his fingers behave, Sebastian almost drops the phone I hand him on the floor.
I watch as he takes in everything his mom tells him. His face is still. “Okay,” he says finally. “I’m coming. I’ll be fine, promise.” He slips my phone into his pocket.
“Sorry, guys. Gotta go.” He relays the short version to the group.
Everyone gives their well wishes as Sebastian hurries for the door, key in hand.
I follow him. “Sebastian.”
He turns, a distant expression on his face.
“You have my phone.”
“Oh. Sorry,” he says and hands it back.
I offer to drive him. His dark blue eyes scan my face before he agrees.
It is a quiet drive with nothing but the sounds of Eddie Vedder playing. I grip the steering wheel, and then relax my arms and hands. I fight to breath normally. To slow my mind.
“I’ll sit in the waiting room,” I say once I have parked. “In case someone needs a ride.”
Sebastian says nothing, only stares at the dashboard.
“Do you want me to call Gwen? Have her here?”
He shakes his head solemnly. “Gwen and I aren’t really together anymore. She’s been seeing Dan.”
“As in your roommate?”
“Not my roommate much longer.” He glances at me out of the corner of his eye.
I take a sudden interest in the street lamp that stands at the head of the car. A light rain falls through the straining beam of orange-y light. My car smells of old cheeseburgers; I had forgotten to toss the trash from lunch with Beth and her kids the day before.
“Dan’s not really to blame. Gwen and I don’t really bring out the best in each other anymore.”
Sebastian rubs his hands together, and before I can talk myself out of it, I take hold of one.
“Whatever we find up there,” I say, “I’ve got your back. You ready?”
“Okay.” He frees his hand and then tugs on the door handle.
I splash after Seb, following his black Chuck Taylors. I am wearing a modest ruby ring on my right hand, which I slip to the ring finger of my left. The rain now pounds on the pavement.
A slate stone entry leads to a blue and gold tiled walkway surrounded on either side by well-kept carpet. Behind a massive U-shaped desk sits a suited receptionist furiously typing things into a computer and answering a phone.
Both Sebastian and I have our hands jammed into our pockets as we step into the elevator. Cold rivulets from my rain-soaked hair drip down my neck. Seb wipes the drops from his face with the inside of his coat. Two nurses enter at the second floor. One makes a joke, and both laugh. At the ICU floor, the elevator doors open to a pristine-white nurses’ station. A couple nurses are behind the desk making notes and studying charts.
“This way,” Seb says.
Our wet shoes squeak on the floor. Machines whir and beep, and hushed whispers come from rooms with open doors. The scent of rubbing alcohol assaults my nose and grazes along my tongue. I try breathing only through my mouth, but it burns, so instead I attempt breathing without smelling.
Seb finds his father’s room and nearly collides with a doctor exiting.
“Are you family?” she says when Sebastian inquires about John Haepst.
“I’m his son,” Seb says, “but--.”
“His fiancé.” I point to Sebastian with my left hand.
She nods taking note of the ring. “Your mother is sitting with him now. He’s sleeping.”
“I’ll just go in,” I say excusing myself. “Helena?”
Her curly brown head sticks out of John’s coat. Her fair English skin has lost all its color, and her brown eyes loom. Yet even as she is, even under the harsh fluorescent light, even under such horrid circumstances, she is beautiful.
She manages a smile when she sees me. “How’d you get in here?”
I show her my hand now adorned with the ruby ring and wink conspiratorially . “Pulled a fast one.”
I meet her quick hug, and then her boy walks into the room.
“Mom?” Sebastian leans down a little allowing his mother to wrap her arms around his neck. “Mom, what happened?”
I find a cushioned fold out chair in a shadowed corner and pull it closer to the bed.
John Haepst is a big man, six foot two and stocky. Full of life is John, but seeing him with tubes and wires connected to his body, his silhouette beneath the thin sheet and white blanket, his hands not quite the same color of life and work -- he looks delicate.
And, suddenly, I know, as I just know things sometimes.
Helena’s fair hand slides beneath her husband’s, palm to palm. His lids open revealing eyes blue like Sebastian’s. John's eyelashes though are normal. Seb must have gotten his criminally long eyelashes from some other distant relative.
“Hello, beautiful. What the hell did I do this time?”
“Hey, son. Okay?”
I excuse myself to find the waiting room.
“Ginnie,” Sebastian stops me at the door.
I grip the door frame. The sickly, sweet smell lays in a thin layer just below the thick layer of freezing air. My jaw aches; I gently separate my clenched jaws and stare at Sebastian’s waist; just past him, Helena and John speak softly, the light behind the bed shining down upon them. The same light illuminates Sebastian’s head when I look up at his face. If only I can make it to my car, I will be okay.
“Please don’t go.”
Air flows in and out of my body again. My heart picks up to its normal rhythm, returns from the slow, pounding that it was.
Sebastian’s eyes squint, and his lips purse. He looks away.
“Seb.” I take hold of his shoulders. “He’s going to be okay. I’m not just saying that,” I say when he starts shaking his head. “I know. Look at me.” His face is still turned down, but his gaze locks on to mine. “Your dad is going to be fine.”
“How do you know?”
I shrug. “I just know.”
Sebastian resumes his normal, everyday face for the moment. We sit with his parents for a few minutes or a few hours. Then Helena orders Seb home. Elliott, his brother, will be here the next morning.
In the elevator, I push the button for the ground level. There is a muttering. I glance at Sebastian.
“Can I hold your hand?” he says louder, his voice pushing past a lump in his throat.
I quirk my lips in thought. “I don’t know. Can you?” I hold out an open hand for him, the quirk in my lips sliding into a smirk.
He returns a small smile and envelopes my small hand in his, his thumb glancing my skin before forming around the shape of my knuckles.
“Geez, you’re freezing,” he says.
“I swear, hospitals are like meat lockers. Must want to keep the specimens fresh.”
“Good lord.” He tucks the captured hand under his armpit.
I giggle. “What are you doing?”
“Seriously, have you felt your hands? How are you still moving and talking? Here, give me the other one.” He swipes my other hand from my pocket and encloses it in both of his blowing into the opening he’s created.
“’I’ll n-n-never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go.’”
“Shut up,” he says rolling his eyes and releasing the hand he’d just been heating with his breath. He replaces the hand trapped under his arm back into the embrace of his own hand. “You try to do something nice for someone….”
Hand in hand we jog to my car. Sebastian opens my door for me before going around to his own side, his shoulders hunched forward and head bent against the rain.
“Home, Charles?” I say in a mock British accent.
Sebastian pauses wiping his face with a towel I keep stashed in my car.
Of course, the matter of Gwendolyn and Dan.
“Or, I have a nice couch? Enough blankets to cover a boat load of people, and if you’re very good, maybe some coffee or hot chocolate.”
He laughs a little. “Okay, thanks.”
The twenty minute drive to my house is eternal. I hit every red light. The car crawls through a road reduced to one lane due to a fender bender. The whole time my stomach twists in knots. It’s no big deal, I tell myself. He’s only sleeping on your couch. Then my thoughts travel to supplies. Do I even have coffee or hot chocolate? What about breakfast? Cereal. Yes, I have cereal. But is the milk still good? Is there even enough left for one bowl?
“Penny for your thoughts?”
I just smile and shake my head waving the question away with a hand.
Finally, we make it to my house.
Sebastian places himself on the middle seat of the couch, his wet coat soaking the cushions. I advise him where the multitude of blankets are and pick out a couple of choice ones that will cover his long frame. I run to the hall closet and grab an unused toothbrush and a tube of paste.
“Do you wear contacts?” I call out to him. Yes. Grab a travel-sized bottle of solution and a container. Put all of these toiletries in the guest bathroom. “Towels and rags are beneath the sink. Body wa-soap, shampoo and stuff in the shower. Need a glass of water?”
My verbal diarrhea halts.
Sebastian is slumped on the couch staring at the carpet.
I slide onto the seat beside him and take his hand. “That was really scary,” I say.
Tears plummet down his cheeks. Then he turns to me and pulls me to himself leaning his head into the crevice between my neck and shoulder, his hands wrapping about my back clinging to my sides. I slide my arms around him and squeeze as tightly as I can.
I can feel my face chapping.