The flowers arrived at exactly 2.35 in the afternoon, followed immediately by their purchaser and carrier. He held them out to her awkwardly, like this same scene hadn't played itself out for the past seventeen years, and so she smiled softly at him, not bothering to feign surprise at his appearance at her door. Pretending was overrated anyway, she often told herself.
Lindsey didn't ask if he could come in, simply waited for the door to open wider, for Stevie to wave him into her home. The flowers were put into a waiting vase (he wondered if she saw the presumption in that) and they sat down on the sofa, a comfortable and familiar lack of inches between them.
He could almost picture a checklist in his hand, ticking off every item as they did it. Knock on door? Check. Give Stevie flowers? Check. Enter house? Check. And so on. One item left. Would he break the silence or would she?
"So...." she said.
"Um, thanks for dropping by."
"Pleasure. Guess you were expecting me," he replied, nodding towards the flowers, taking pride of place on the coffee table beside the latest issue of Vogue and a few loose leafs of paper with little doodles of horses on them.
"I was," she confirmed. "You're nothing if not predictable in your old age, y'know, Linds."
"As shaming as that might be, I agree."
And then silence fell. It wasn't awkward, really. It was hard for that to ever occur between them, in truth. They just knew each other too well. He had once overheard her telling someone (a reporter, maybe?) that she found it difficult to know what was going on in his head but he seriously doubted it. The way she was watching him now, almost too carefully, her head tilted just so, was almost unnerving. Or maybe that was just him reading too much into what he was seeing. That had happened more than once over the past forty-eight years, after all...
"Did you end up going out last night?" he said, not particularly wanting to know the answer but needing it all the same.
She rolled her eyes. "Smooth. And no, I didn't. Sulamith and I had a quiet night in with a glass of wine and a Hepburn film."
"Ah, sounds lovely."
And it did. It also sounded lonely. However, that was a banned word by mutual non-acknowledged agreement so he didn't utter it.
"And Sulamith kept her paws to herself?" Lindsey asked.
"She was a perfect lady. And you," she added hesitantly. "Did you have a good evening?"
"Yeah, fine." He knew Stevie neither wanted nor needed to know more than that. A few years ago, he'd been too honest about how enjoyable a time he'd had out with his wife. His visit had ended minutes later, the door closing (slamming, really) in his face and Stevie's face bearing an expression he hated himself for having put there.
"She knows you're here?"
"I didn't exactly tell her I was coming here, no, just that I was going for a quick drive. Things are peaceful at the moment, you know. I don't want to ruin that."
"Contented?" she asked, and her tone was too flat, too unemotional for her. It didn't fit the force, the life, the energy she usually emitted that he loved so much.
"Usually," he answered, almost hesitantly, shifting slightly closer to Stevie so at least she could feel the warmth of his thigh touching hers, their arms brushing. He could be here for her physically even when hurting her emotionally. It was a pattern of behavior they'd fallen into plenty of times previously, though usually with a more sexual bent. Afternoon visits were less dangerous, though still never without temptations.
"And today? What anniversary is it again?" Like she didn't know. And so he didn't answer, giving her a look which would suffice as an attempt at a stern reprimand. "Happy 14th wedding anniversary, Lindsey," she ceded, smiling wryly.
"You shouldn't be wishing me glad tidings. I know what it did-"
She cut him off and he could see her swallow the remark she'd wanted to fire back at him, a denial of the pain that day, this day, still caused her. "I'm living vicariously," she said instead, her tone relaxed and light in the way her restless hands on the hem of her sweater weren't.
"You wish YOU were married to Kit?"
An attempt at levity, at making a small joke. Her twisted, half-hearted smile informed him he'd missed the mark. By a few miles.
"I'll tell you this for nothing, Stevie, she might look charming and sweet but..." he forged ahead, pretending to shiver. "I got the cold shoulder for an entire week last year when she realized I'd forgotten to tell her about those extra dates we'd booked."
"Doing anything special for her today? You better have remembered to buy her a gift, Mr Buckingham." He could almost cast her in the role of friend when she spoke like that, like it was normal for them to chat about their other other halves, swapping advice and sharing stories. It wasn't normal, however, and he winced at the forced nature of it all.
"We did dinner out last night and she knows I refuse two nights of that shit in a row so..."
"So, no, you're doing nothing special?"
"I've run out of ideas, to be honest. There are only so many pieces of jewelery to buy, only so many vacation spots we haven't been to. It was easier to get gifts when it was us, you know, when we didn't have money to buy them. There's just nothing she doesn't have."
"Except your company on her wedding anniversary, apparently," she said, almost bitingly as she took his hand in her own and placed them on her leg. Possessive.
"True. But I couldn't visit yesterday so..."
"You didn't need to visit today, either," Stevie said, and he could feel her thumb gently rubbing his finger, could feel her touch against his wedding ring. Christ, he hated that he still noticed that, that it still felt wrong that she was touching a wedding band he wore that didn't match one of her own.
"Closest to Valentine's Day as I could get and-"
"Lindsey..." The soft sadness in her eyes made him swallow. Hard.
"I had flowers to give you. I had to do that," he barrelled on. Like there was a rulebook which stated unequivocally that unless he delivered flowers to his ex-girlfriend on or near Valentine's Day he'd be stricken down or die from a plague or something equally disastrous. "I just, you know how it is..." he continued, searching her eyes for the response he wanted. Needed.
"I don't want 'I'm sorry' or 'I wish' or 'If only'. It really doesn't help, Lindsey. Not one bit."
"I can't help but want to offer that to you, though."
"And the flowers."
"And the flowers," he confirmed. He'd once arranged for Karen to buy some on his behalf and given her a card in advance to attach to them when Stevie had vacationed in Hawaii over February a few years ago; she knew how important it was to him. He couldn't give her what they both sometimes craved, desired more than anything, but he could give her a token. "I brought something for you as well but..."
"Brought not bought?" she asked curiously.
"Yeah, from home."
"I will actually kill you if it's a piece from Kristen's collection, by the way. I love antiques but..."
He couldn't stop himself from laughing at the horror on her face, kissing her brow and squeezing her hand reassuringly. "No, no. Not that. I'm not sure if it's something you'll want, though."
"Linds, I'll never refuse a gift, you know that," she said, trying to reassure him. "I adore them, especially those from you, even as misguided as they usually are."
"This one is a bit different, though."
Rolling her eyes, she held her hand out. "C'mon, just get this over with. I promise not to hit you, okay?"
Sometimes promises were broken. He suspected this might be one of those occasions but this was something he had to do, wouldn't forgive himself for not doing. He reached for a small gift bag and pulled out a book.
Puzzled, she took it from him, examined it. "I have a copy of this one already, you know."
"This was mine. I found it when I was sorting through some old boxes last night. It's not the book that's important, exactly. It's what I found inside. Shake it. But first," he said, putting a stilling hand on hers and a finger under her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. "I AM sorry. So sorry."
Still confused but more curiosity in her eyes than anything, she shook the small book of poetry lightly over her lap. A small, slightly dinted photo fell out. She put the book aside and Lindsey couldn't breathe, couldn't watch as she turned it over.
He could almost feel the tenseness in her leg right next to his, and he certainly felt the warmth drain out of her hand under his as she brought the photograph up closer to her face with her other hand, her fingers visibly shaking. He grit his teeth and closed his eyes. Why had he thought this was a good idea, again?
"I'm sorry," he repeated, head bowed.
"I know. I had forgotten I even had a copy. I thought you tore them all up."
"Me too. I..."
He opened his eyes again, looked at her. Her face was even paler than usual and he could see tears already welling. He'd done his fair share of crying and weeping last week, and so he choked back the apologies he wanted to smother her with. That wouldn't help. Not now. It certainly hadn't helped then.
"I couldn't look at those photos, you know. It was too..." Stevie touched the center of the photo gently, running a finger along the two young people there, a young girl sitting comfortably on the mattress, shirt riding up as her even younger boyfriend gently laid a hand on the slightly swollen belly, both of them flushed with happiness and grinning. "Robin thought it was so funny how you always reacted, how you just wanted to touch my stomach all the time, see if it had grown since yesterday."
"Sometimes I convinced myself it had," he said softly. "People always say pregnant women glow, you know. You already glowed. You always had for me. But for those few months... God, you were even more beautiful to me, y'know, as impossible as I thought that would be."
"You need to stop. Please. Now," Stevie said, her grip tightening her harder on both his fingers and the photograph. "I can't..."
"Do you want me to take it back?"
"No," she said, not exactly shouting but... She was adamant. Fierce. "I want this. I.."
"You need it?" he suggested.
"Yeah," she agreed. "I do. I sometimes regretted ruining the photographs we took but..."
"Would it be harder if you'd kept them?"
"I don't know. I learned my lesson though and never did it again."
"Ruin them, you mean?"
"No, I didn't take photographs," she said, closing her eyes against the tears that were starting to fall. He reached a hand out to her face, wiped a few away, before motioning for her to rest her head on his shoulder. It was broad enough to support her. He could be strong enough. "Do you think we would have been good parents back then?" she asked, her voice muffled against the leather of his jacket.
"I like to think so," she said softly, looking down at the photograph again. "We looked happy."
"We were. A little scared but a lot happy."
Stevie sighed. "You'd think I'd be able to talk about it, you know. Properly. Easily. It wasn't like it was the only time."
"It was the first. Firsts are always momentous, critical, in a way thirds, fourths and so on can never be, no matter how amazing or devastating those are as well."
"Yeah, I guess. I just wish..."
"I heard a wise woman tell me once that the words 'I'm sorry', 'I wish' and 'If only' don't help."
"Wise women lie too," she said, breathing less agitated than a few moments before, something he was grateful for. "When do you have to leave, Lindsey? I know we don't have long."
"I have forever for you."
"It's true," he insisted. "I won't leave until you tell me too."
"What if I ask you to never leave me?"
"You wouldn't ask that of me."
She had once. He'd still left. He knew that one time had hurt more than all the times she hadn't asked. And it certainly hurt more than the numerous times she'd told him to go, and yet he'd stayed.
"I love you and I always will," he said, unsure whether he could or should comfort or reassure her with empty promises or hard truths. He settled on a promise and a truth, and listened as she cried for a minute more before putting the photograph gently aside on the coffee table, her eyes still red and her cheeks still flushed as she turned back into his waiting arms.
"Happy Not Valentine's Day, Lindsey."
"Maybe next year, eh?" he said.
"Maybe," she agreed.
Stevie would expect him on the fifteenth, though, and that's when he would come. Some things couldn't change or everything would change. And they weren't ready for that. He suspected they probably never would be.