“Hello, Nathalie.” He raised one hand, waving awkwardly at her.
“Is this … is this your boyfriend?” she asked. Then she leaned down to Gemma and lowered her voice. “Honey, he’s too old for you.”
“No, Mom, this is Dad,” Gemma tried to explain.
“Brian,” Harper clarified. “Mine and Gemma’s dad. He’s your husband.”
“What?” Nathalie straightened up and shook her head. “No, I’m not married.”
“Yeah, Mom, you are,” Harper said gently.
“But he…” Nathalie stared at Brian, looking confused and a bit disgusted. “He’s so old.”
“I’m actually only six months older than you,” Brian said, doing his best to keep his voice light.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “When is my birthday, then, smarty pants?”
“October sixth, 1973,” Brian replied instantly.
“Lucky guess,” Nathalie said, but by her expression, Gemma wasn’t sure if Nathalie knew if that was correct. It was, but there was a chance that she didn’t remember her birthday anymore. “What’s my middle name?”
“Anne,” Brian said, then pointed to Gemma. “The same as Gemma’s.”
“How long have we been married, then?” Nathalie asked, but her disbelief was melting. Her expression had softened into something more curious.
“It was, um, twenty years this past April.” He lowered his eyes for a second, then looked back up at her.
“Twenty years?” Nathalie asked.
“This is really him,” Gemma said, hoping to help convince her mother.
“It’s me, Nat,” Brian said simply.
“Nat?” Her eyes flashed with painful recognition, and her arms dropped to her sides. “You used to call me that. Nobody calls me that anymore.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have to call you that,” Brian said.
“No, you should.” She reached out and grabbed his hand. “Come on. Come in. We need to talk.”
She led him through the house, introducing him to the staff as her husband, and Brian would just smile politely. The staff cleared out her roommates so they could have some privacy. Nathalie sat down at the dining room table, scooting her chair close to his, and stared at him with utter fascination.
Gemma and Harper weren’t sure what they should do in this situation, so they just sat down across the table and watched their parents talk.
“How did we meet?” Nathalie asked.
He’d put his hand on the table, and she was almost petting it. Gemma had never seen anything like it. It was as if she wanted to hold his hand, but she was too frantic to keep it still, so she kept running her hands over it.
“We met in elementary school,” Brian said. “But we didn’t start dating until high school.”
“We were high school sweethearts?” Nathalie asked.
He nodded. “We were, yeah.”
“You took me to the prom?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“I knew it.” She squealed and laughed. “What color was my dress? How did I look?”
“It was kind of a dark blue. You were beautiful.” He smiled at the memory. “You always were. You still are.”
“Did you propose to me?” Nathalie asked.
“I did,” he said. “It wasn’t very romantic. I was too nervous and I kept stumbling. You actually guessed before I had a chance to get the words out, but you instantly said yes.”
She twisted the gold wedding band that he still wore on his finger, and he let her. “Where’s my ring?”
“Um, the girls have it,” Brian said. “Gemma does, actually.”
“I keep it in a jewelry box on my dresser,” Gemma said, and Nathalie glanced over at her for a second before returning her attention back to Brian.
“Why don’t I wear it?” Nathalie asked.
“We wanted to keep it safe,” he explained.
“Do you have any pictures of our wedding?”
“I do.” He nodded. “Not with me, but I have many.”
“And after we got married, we had the girls?” Nathalie looked over at them again.
“Yes, we did. They’re both our daughters.” Brian motioned in their direction, but he wouldn’t look at them, probably afraid that they might see the pain in his eyes.
Nathalie was staring at Harper and Gemma like she’d never seen them before, scrutinizing them. “They’re beautiful.”
“Yeah, they are,” Brian agreed with a small smile.
“Harper looks like you.” Nathalie tilted her head. “She has your nose and your eyes, but hers are grayer. Yours are more blue.”
“I think she’s prettier, too,” Brian said.
Harper laughed nervously. “Thanks, Dad.”
“You visit me a lot,” Nathalie said to the girls. “I see you. I remember you.” She pointed to Gemma. “You swim, and … and”—she pointed at Harper—“you’re going to college soon?”
“Yep, that’s right,” Harper said.
“I used to swim. But I’m acting in a play now.” Gemma leaned forward on the table. “You used to be in plays. Do you remember that?”
“No.” Nathalie shook her head. “Should I?”
“No.” Gemma forced a smile at her. “It’s okay, Mom.”
Nathalie faced Brian again. She stopped petting his hand and just held it as she stared at him. “You don’t visit me. Do you?”
“No, I don’t.” His voice was thick. “I’m sorry.”
“Why not?” Nathalie asked, but there wasn’t a hint of accusation in her voice.
“You … you don’t remember me very much anymore.” Brian chose his words carefully. “It’s hard for me to see you and not be able to talk to you like my wife, like the mother of my children. I want to talk to you about our life together, and I can’t.” He swallowed hard. “You don’t remember it.”
“Why don’t I remember you?” Nathalie asked.
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “You remembered me more, after the accident, when I used to see you a lot. So it’s my fault. I should’ve stayed with you longer.”
“I wish I remembered you,” she said quietly. “You seem very kind, and you have nice eyes.” She reached up, her fingers touching the crow’s-feet at the corner of his eye.