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Chapter 29

 Chapter 29

I feel my whole body tense with apprehension, but force my voice to remain civil as I answer with a question on my own.

"Why are you here, mom?"

She opens her mouth as if to offer one of her cutting, ironic answers, but then closes it again as she thinks better of that.

"I came here to talk to you, that's all. I also bring this meager offering of food, if that helps make me appear less threatening."

I feel like smiling despite the feeling of unease still gripping me, then nod.

"Sure, do you want to come in?"

"If you want me to, but why don't we take a walk in the park, like we used to when you were in kindergarten? I even brought some stale bread for the ducks," she adds with a gentle smile.

It's obvious that she's trying to pacify me - whether I need to be pacified or not - and before I can answer Bella slips in beside me, one arm slung across my lower back to keep herself anchored there beside me. She greets my mother with a sad but nevertheless nice smile, the gesture getting eerily mirrored, before my mom wordlessly hands the boxes to her.

"Guess I'll grab my coat then," I say once Bella has walked into the kitchen to store the food in the freezer. Glancing at the clock of the microwave I decide that I might as well walk to the hospital once we're done talking, seeing as I only have another hour until my shift starts.

Hugging Bella from behind I kiss her good-bye, then squeeze Jazz's shoulder on my way back to the door. When I join my mother outside I still can't shake the bad feeling off that she's going to scold me for acting like a total jackass any moment now, but when we have to wait for the elevator, she turns to me and frowns.

"I'm not here because of what you said before you stormed out, we don't even have to breach that subject at all. Living with your father for more than half of my life has made me accustomed to ignoring everything that could be even slightly uncomfortable. I'm here because I think that this talk is long overdue, and with what happened today, well, let's just say I feel the need to tell my son how proud I am of the man he has become."

The arriving elevator car keeps me from having to find an answer to that in my stunned state, and we both don't say a word for the short walk over to the park, but it's no longer the uncomfortable silence from before in the hallway. During the day it has become increasingly warmer, thawing the last bits of snow to gray slush. Not many people are outside under the overcast sky, leaving us to have our talk in comfortable privacy.

"Did you just say that to lull me into complacency, or do you really think that?"

She smiles at the question, but I don't have to explain what I mean.

"No, I really think that you've grown up a lot these past months. Not that you've been acting all that immaturely before, but since you and Bella are together you've changed a little, for the better I believe."

"Gee, now you're making me blush."

"I highly doubt that anything I could come up with will have that effect on you," she retorts, then angles towards one of the smaller paths leading to the duck pond.

"I'm sorry for how we've left. Guess that wasn't quite that mature."

She snorts as if to say, "You think?", but leaves it at that.

"As I said, we don't have to talk about that."

"Unlike my father I don't shy away from a topic just because it makes me uncomfortable. And I don't have anything to hide."

Acknowledging that with a nod, my mother doesn't hesitate long to put that claim to the test.

"So is it true that you and Bella have welcomed Jazz back, and not just as a friend who stays over on the couch until he finds a new place?"

"You mean if we've had sex again? Yes."

I keep my answer to the point, mostly because I have no idea how much about that she even wants to know, but my reply doesn't seem to surprise her.

"Before or after resolving your issues?"

The near playful lilt to her voice makes me grin, but I try to hide it.

"For the most part after."

"Well, good for you then."

I'm still a little wary of how well she's taking that, but she picks up on it before I can ask any further. Stopping at the side of the path she waits for me to join her, then turns to face me, her gentle eyes holding my gaze captive.

"I've never had any problems with you having an interest in men, with or without Bella involved. As far as I'm concerned, you can sleep and live with whoever you want to. The only thing that counts for me is that you're happy, Edward." She clucks her tongue when I try to speak up, and adds,

"Of course it was a little hard for me to process the news when I learned of it last summer, but I've had a lot of time to come to terms with it since then, and I've seen how unhappy you were for so long. It's good to see you more like your usual self again."

I don't know if I quite believe her, although I really want to, and my silence seems to speak volumes as she resumes talking quickly.

"I have to admit, there was a time when I wouldn't have been that surprised if you'd one Sunday turned up on our doorstep and introduced Jazz as your boyfriend."

"You thought I was gay?"

She shrugs.

"You should have heard yourself talk about him when you two met in your first week at college. Jazz this, Jazz that, all the things you'd done - it was hard not to take your enthusiasm at finally having a male best friend after spending years tagging after Alice as nothing more than that."

I wisely keep my tongue about what I remember never telling her, then I think about what she meant with what she just said. I have to admit, I've never quite been able to pinpoint the moment when my friendship with Jazz has become more than just that, but I know that back then it really has been just that.

As if she had read my mind, my mom shrugs.

"Anyway, I nearly forgot about that when you started talking twice as much about Bella, but in hindsight I think I haven't been all that wrong. Either way, I was glad that you were finding new friends on your own, and I have to admit, after the introverted way you were acting through most of high school I was just glad that you were finally connecting with people more easily."

"Introverted, eh? Have you ever dealt with the usual bunch of fifteen year olds? I never knew what to talk with any of them. Plus they didn't like me because I was too smart for them. And then they didn't like me because they all thought that Alice's friends were all over me, while they kept ignoring the other guys of the same grade."

She huffs, then gets a certain gleam in her eyes.

"Which reminds me, did Bella ever see the picture of when Alice and her friends dressed you up as a girl at her sixteenth birthday? You were so adorable! And pretty."

"Mom!"

"Ah, shut up, I'm sure neither Bella nor Jazz will ever dispute your masculinity. But it's good to know that I've found a new thing to blackmail you with, should I need it."

I don't comment on that, happy enough when she doesn't mention what else she could be using to force me to act all nice and docile, but instead return to the previous topic.

"Was it really that obvious? About Bella I mean." A little in afterthought I add, "and Jazz."

She shrugs, a light smile playing around the corners of her lips.

"I guess a mother of a different child wouldn't have noticed that much, but I've spent so many years worrying that you'd never find friends who you'd feel so comfortable with, who could be your intellectual equals and also share your interests and hobbies. Not that you were that much of an outcast, but at ever PTA meeting I saw anew that nearly none of the other parents knew you, and even the teachers didn't seem to have found any connection to you. I was always hoping that things would change in college, and I still stay by my conviction that as long as you're happy with your life, I am, too. Plus, you know that I've always liked Jazz a lot, and not just because of any speculations about what you two might be up to when you're not showing your best behavior under parental supervision."

It's a little scary to realize that my own mother has known all that for so long but never said a word, least of all anything to express any concern or displeasure. No wonder she's taking the recent changes in stride.

We're both fall silent for a little while, watching as a string of ducks crosses the pond, but as they don't see us offering them any food they just pass us by.

"You know that if you need someone to talk to, I'm always here for you?

Also for topics that you might not want to discuss with your mother."

"Thank you, I appreciate that."

She nods, then regards me for a long time as if the more or less neutral look on my face would tell her all my secrets.

"Is there anything you would want to talk about right now?"

I shake my head, probably a little too fast, but she doesn't pry. That's one of the things I've always loved about her, that she never pushes, always waits patiently for people to come to her. And it's a tactic that has never failed to work, if I remember all the things I've confessed over the years under that gentle, patient gaze of hers.

Chewing on the inside of my cheek I try to find the right words, then just blurt out what keeps racketing inside my head for the past hour.

"I just don't understand how Alice could do this to us."

At first she shows no reaction, but when it becomes apparent that I'm disinclined to go on, she sighs.

"You know that I don't like to take sides. It's not my place, this is your problem, and you know that I see her like a surrogate daughter most of the time. But I have to admit that today it's hard for me not to be cross with her."

"Cross?"

"Edward, I'm a woman beyond the age where she still has numbers on her birthday cake, of course I'm 'cross', not fucking mad or something like that.

I leave the expletives to you, they suit your well versed speech much better than me. But age and emotional distance might lend me a somewhat different point of view here."

Sighing, I rub my eyes.

"I know that she's always hand a penchant for drama, but today, that was simply -" I want to say fucked up, but then change my mind. "It wasn't like the Alice I've known since before I grew a beard. She was mean and calculating, hostile when no one even provoked her, and deliberately hurtful. I kind of get why she's mad at me, and while I think it's a very low blow I see why she'd want to flaunt Nate in front of Jazz, but what I don't understand is why she keeps attacking Bella. Bella never did anything to provoke her, and I'm still amazed that she didn't bite Alice's head off today."

"That's because Bella was about the only one who acted moderately mature today. Speaking of which, please tell them both that if they smoke pot on my back porch again I'll ask for a joint for compensation next time."

Her words make me snicker, and I accept the jibe with a nod.

"Will do. I didn't even know Jazz had any."

"Or you would have followed them outside?" she ventures a guess, then laughs at my pointed glare. "Oh, come on, I don't believe that you've never smoked any pot before. I've been in college, too, remember? Although that was in the late seventies, we probably smoked a lot of stuff you kids wouldn't touch anymore."

"I've been working in the ER long enough now to tell you that's wishful thinking."

"Be that as it may, I think you're missing the point about Alice," she resumes our previous conversation thread.

"Which is?"

"Now Bella not only has you, but also Jazz, leaving Alice with no one, as you so aptly summed up for her."

It's funny how even her neutral words can make me feel like an ass all over again, but I have to admit, I'm still not sorry about what I've said.

"You know that she kicked him out? And unless you count a very brief spell over the last few weeks, ending the day she and Jazz broke up, Alice has been closing herself off from me. It's not my fault that people around her have been turning their back on her."

"I didn't say it was, just that I think that she somehow feels like the three of you are banding together against her, which is why she felt the need to attack who she presumed to be the weakest of the three of you."

"How can she think that Bella is weak?" Now I'm really puzzled.

My mom shrugs, as she herself seems to have the same problem as I do with understanding the concept.

"You know that Alice is one of the people who likes to judge a book by its cover. To her, Bella is very likely still the nice, sometimes shy girl she met in college, and the only time she revised that view was when Bella tried to fit into the image Mike had of her. It took me a while to realize that the real Bella is very different from that, and it's mostly her good nature that leaves her seeming vulnerable and impressionable. I have no doubt that if push comes to shove, Bella will be the last to give in of the four of you."

Her words make me wonder just how much my mother knows about what has been going on between us - both between only Bella and me, and the two of us with Jazz. We've never really talked about it after the disastrous gala last summer, but I know that Bella and Esme have been spending a lot of time together, and without a doubt talking about us, too.

"So you think it's jealousy that makes her assume the martyr role? Because obviously, it's all our fault, and she's the one suffering the most."

"Now you're just being dense," she accuses me with a hint of laughter in her voice, but when she goes on, she's completely serious again. "If things were so simple you would have solved them months ago. And while I think I know her well, my view of her is biased, too. I won't even defend what she did and how she seems to approach things, but I still think that on some level, she simply feels left out. You should talk to her about that if you want to save your friendship, which I think you should, old and close friends are a rare commodity sometimes."

For a moment I just stare at her, wondering if she has gone off the deep end after all.

"How could I possibly talk to her right now? She wouldn't listen, and I'm not sure I even want to talk to her as it is!"

"Not now, but eventually. When the storm has blown over, you're not high up in the clouds about just how wonderful your own life is, she's had time to reassemble herself, and you can meet on neutral middle ground. You're not in kindergarten anymore, just because Jazz or Bella might not want to deal with her again, that doesn't mean you have to cut yourself off from her. It's only a matter of wanting to work things out."

The more immature side of me wants to stick out my tongue and deny that I will ever want this to happen, but I'm sensible enough to just answer with a long spell of silence. While I don't think she's right now, I know that my mother has a unique ability to see right through other people's bullshit, something I greatly envy her, and I'm not going to protest her point now and set myself up for ridiculing later if she's right. There's something else that has been eating on me for much, much longer than the issue with Alice, and as she has more or less prodded the anthill already, I might as well go all the way.

"Does he hate me for who I am? When you said you were proud of the man I had become, it sounded like you were skipping over a 'contrary to what others might believe'."

A while it seems like she won't answer my question, probably as not to underline my conviction, but when she does, her voice sounds a little hollow with defeat.

"Edward, I won't lie to you, your father has problems with several of the decisions you have made in your life, and it pains me to see the two most important people for me so at odds with each other. But that doesn't mean he's right, or even has a point."

"That's not why I was asking. I just -" I have to stop there to keep my voice from skipping an octave with the sudden tightness in my chest, and it takes me a bit to breathe through it. "It's just that it's hard enough sometimes to live with the consequences of said choices without having my own father show his disapproval every moment possible."

"I know," she admits, then offers me another of those gentle smiles. "You know that I love your father, and we're a good match on so many fronts that I tend to ignore where our opinions diverge. If I didn't respect him for the person he is, he wouldn't be your father nor would I have stayed with him for all those years. His only fault, or at least the greatest, is that he goes through life seeing only black and white, while you and I, we're strong believers in the shades of gray philosophy."

As much as I want to agree with her - and I even do, just not in the conclusion she seems to offer - I have to speak up.

"I can see where he's disappointed in me throwing my budding career in Plastic Surgery into the wind on a whim, and because of the backlash my private issues have caused me at the time, but I'm more than happy that I did, because I think I'm much better suited to work in the ER and Intensive Care. I can also see why he thinks that my bisexuality is something he doesn't approve of, seeing as it's nothing he can put in a neat box that everyone will respect, but -"

"It's not that," she interrupts me, uncharacteristic enough for her that she stops my whining short.

"What then? Does he really have that much of a problem with the fact that I like to tie up my girlfriend and spank her?"

"If that was all you did I'm sure he would keep on ignoring it."

Her words don't really make sense to me, and when she sees that, she explains with a weary sigh.

"Your father is, for whatever unfathomable reason, blaming himself that somewhere, somehow he must have done something incredibly wrong for his son to have developed what he thinks is a pathological mental disorder."

"He what?"

"Before you jump to any conclusions, please let me explain."

"How can I jump to any conclusions when my own father thinks that I'm some sick -"

"Edward, I said let me explain!" she bites out, and her tone alone would have been enough to shut me up. We stare at each other for a few seconds, until I speak first.

"Sadomasochism is not a disease."

"Of course it isn't, but tell that to a man who thinks his medical degree comes with the guarantee that he knows it all?" she huffs, then turns her tone to a gentler cadence. "And before you bite my head off, too, he's not blaming you for it, but himself."

"That makes even less sense."

She gives a noncommittal grunt at that.

"I guess you'd have to be your father for that, but maybe I can explain what I think is going on in this usually very bright head of his. Unlike the two of you I haven't had to have my share of psychology classes, but I'm sure that my layman terms will let me explain, too. He's blaming himself because he thinks that something must have occurred in your childhood to lead to this, and he was never there for you to see nor save you from whatever happened. So now he's eaten up with guilt, but as he can barely manage to talk about the whole issue with me, I don't see how it's something the two of you could ever discuss, should you want to try."

"Not really." I've spent enough time thinking myself that I'm a sick weirdo, I don't need to relive that in a handful of uncomfortable conversations with my own father.

"Be that as it may, you know that your father doesn't want to deal with imperfection, and as you are a constant reminder to him of how he himself failed you, it's not that much of a stretch to guess why he keeps acting the way he does. And I don't mean this as an excuse, but as an explanation."

I still can't wrap my head around this, but when I open my mouth to say something, she forestalls me with a tsking noise.

"Don't tell me how screwed up that view is, I know. But your father has been difficult ever since you were born, and we've had more fights about what is best for you than I can count. For instance he saw it as a personal insult when I spoke up against letting you skip grades in Junior High already, and I still think that it was the right decision to let you have a real childhood instead of sending you to college with fifteen. I don't doubt that you could have managed the intellectual challenge well enough, but there's so much more to growing up than zooming through your scholarly pursuits.

Every time you didn't ace an exam he was ranting that I was holding you back, that I was falsely raising you to be mediocre at best when you could be nothing less than brilliant. And don't tell me you weren't aware of all that, you must have heard us arguing on more than one occasion. I still insist that it was the right choice to let you have a life, and make your own decisions in time, while he will never stop blaming himself for whatever might happen. I don't know why he thinks he is such a failure as a father, but he does, and I don't think either of us has the power to change his mind."

Even though her words pacify me somewhat, they still leave me aching inside. If course she is right, I've known for a long time that my parents disagree on virtually everything concerning me, and there was a time when I was convinced that was my fault, too. Still, as sound as her explanation is, it doesn't answer the central question.

"If he thinks it's his fault, why does he behave like I'm constantly letting him down?"

"Because he's a man stuck in midlife crisis ever since you left the house to live on campus, and as he seems to be too decent to bend his secretary over her office table to shake himself out of it I expect him to be stuck there until the merry laughter of a horde of grandchildren will let him assume the role of the wise, good-natured grandfather." She grins at the vision she herself must find equally ridiculous as I do, before she goes on. "Even though you probably don't want to see it, you and your father are so alike sometimes that I think a psychologist rather than geneticist would be the one to ascertain your relationship the fastest, if ever needed. The main difference I see is that somehow I managed to influence you enough to listen to reason through diligently nagging at you whenever I got enough time and opportunity. And before you protest, ask yourself what Bella would say on you blaming yourself for things entirely outside of your control or responsibility."

Like always she finds exactly the right thing to say to shut me up, and when I remain silent she pulls out the bread for the ducks and breaks off a piece for me.

"Here, have a cookie. I promise, when you finish eating it, you'll be feeling right as rain."

For a moment I just stare at her, then start laughing as I accept the bread, throwing bits of it at the rapidly returning ducks.

"Can a day get any weirder when your own mother is quoting 'Matrix'?"

"Don't look at me like that, young man, I'm a cool mom, I'm allowed to watch films like that and pretend I'm not laughing my ass off at how scandalized my son is that I could actually like them. Or does your own expectation of people accepting you as you are only go as far as yourself?

And on second thought, don't answer that."

We both feed the ducks in silence, me lost in my own thoughts, her obviously satisfied that she caused that reaction in me. Too soon my time is up, and I accompany her back to her car, then even indulge her when she claims she feels the strong need to drop me off at the hospital like she used to, back when I was a little boy and wanted to see my father.

When I finally make it inside the ER I'm still amazed how once again she has managed to make everything right with the sheer force of her will, or at least push me into the right direction so that I can find my own way there. I am well aware of the fact that the road before me will be rocky and hard - it was bad enough at times to manage uniting Bella's and my life into one unit of compromise, I'm sure that adding Jazz to that will end more than once in utter chaos - but the conviction that in the end it will be worth all the hassle and that we will manage is once again strong in me.