Out Of The Woods
“Daddy, did you see how fast I was? Did you see me?”
“I saw you, you did so well! Ivy and I were cheering for you all the time.”
Hailey had placed second in her first track run. I worked as a coach for the track & field teams now, so Samuel had been sitting with Ivy while she ran.
We went to the pier, all four of us together, and got ice cream. Hailey was excitedly telling Samuel all about her track times.
It made my heart swell, not so much because she seemed to have a talent for running, but because I hadn’t seen her so proud of herself before, and I was happy that Samuel was here to experience it too. I didn’t want him to miss too many of the girls’ milestones just because we were no longer together.
The girls ran off to try the ferris wheel and we were alone. Samuel awkwardly scooted over to where Hailey had been sitting. We rarely spent any time together. Ever since that uncomfortable Winterfest a year and a half ago, we had mostly kept to administrative texts and taking turns picking up the girls from kindergarten.
Finally, Samuel cleared his throat.
“So, uh. You look… well.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I was sweaty and Ivy had wiped some ice cream on my sleeve, but I did feel better than I had in a long time.
“Thanks. You too. The beard suits you.”
We talked for a while, carefully sticking to safe subjects. I told him about Jessica getting into fashion design, how she was planning to move to Del Sol Valley with her boyfriend. Samuel updated me on Daria and Griffin who just found out they were expecting a baby.
Then, his expression turned serious.
“Do you ever… have you talked to Charlie?”
I realised that it was the first time either of us had spoken his name for almost two years.
“No. I wouldn’t pick up if he called, but he hasn’t tried.”
“He actually called me when he heard about the divorce. But we didn’t speak for long. I may have said that I would personally castrate him without anaesthesia if he ever contacted you again.”
“With a dull scalpel. I was pretty angry at the time, and he said some really cruel things, and… I just don’t know who he is anymore. I haven’t heard from him since.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to give him a hug, but I couldn’t imagine Samuel would ever want me to touch him again.
“Samuel, I’m really sorry that I screwed things up for everyone. Not just us, but you and Charlie too.”
Samuel sighed and attempted to smile.
“Hey, he wasn’t exactly blameless. He was supposed to be my brother. He should never have – anyways, you said you wanted to discuss the girls’ living arrangement? Are you not happy with the split?”
I was grateful for the change of subject.
“I am, but I’ve been asked to volunteer to coach the track & field team for seniors. And I would like to accept, but it’s in the evenings and I’d need you to have the girls a bit more often. I know your schedule can be difficult, so I only want to do it if you can find the time.”
He looked relieved.
“Sure, we can figure something out. For a moment I wondered if you, you know… Found someone.”
“Oh, no. It’s nothing like that. I just figured I should be doing something worthwhile with my time now that the girls are getting older, instead of being stuck in the house all the time.”
“You do know that was always an option, right?”
“Sorry, Samuel, I don’t mean to sound like I was a prisoner. It was my own choice to stay at home, I know. And you did try to talk me out of it.”
“Maybe I should have tried harder.”
“Samuel, don’t. I doubt you could have convinced me back then. I was pretty out of reach, I think. You were right, there was nothing you could have said that would have made me listen.”
We were both quiet. I wanted to ask him if he was seeing someone, ask why he cared if I was. But suddenly the girls were back and begged for more ice cream and the moment had passed.
In the fall, Hailey started school which meant less flexibility. She needed help with homework, she needed to have her school things with her whether she stayed with me or Samuel at night, and he struggled to make his work hours fit her new schedule. It was a hassle.
To make it all easier, we agreed that she should stay with me on weekdays until she’d settled in, just to get some stability.
Samuel was frustrated. He missed her, and Hailey was jealous that Ivy still got to visit daddy on weeknights and she didn’t. It was a few weeks of absolute chaos, and everyone was miserable.
Samuel had just dropped off Ivy and was about to leave when I stopped him.
“Samuel, before you go – this isn’t working. Hailey cries at night when Ivy isn’t there, and she misses you.”
“I know. It’s not really working for me either. I don’t like treating them so differently.”
“I have an idea, just as a temporary solution, but… it’s a bit unusual, I guess.”
“I was thinking you could just come here after work. I would pick up the girls, take them home, make dinner. You could eat with us whenever you can make it, help Hailey with homework, hang out a bit, maybe put them to bed. You’d still be able to spend time alone with them when I coach in the evenings, and your work schedule would matter less. There would be some sort of routine. And you’d see them more, both of them.”
“Wait… You’d have me come by every day and make me dinner?”
“… You’re right, it’s too weird. It was just a suggestion.”
“No, I mean, what’s the catch? I am not turning down your cooking and seeing the girls every day for a while.”
“No catch. I just want everyone to be happy.”
He looked at me thoughtfully.
“You really do, don’t you? Well, no harm in trying it, I guess.”
“See you for dinner tomorrow then?”
The new arrangement worked surprisingly well. I had never seen Samuel so relaxed. Even when he had a long shift, he was all smiles when he walked through the door and Hailey and Ivy were on him immediately.
I found myself looking forward to that moment every day, seeing him laugh as he hugged and kissed the girls, teased them, asked them about their day. They all looked so happy.
He would help Hailey with homework while I cooked dinner for all of us. He always managed to make it fun and interesting for her, and he even made sure Ivy felt included.
I loved listening to him patiently explain things to them. It made me happy to see. I might have done everything else wrong, but at least I picked an amazing father for my children.
I was almost sad that I had to scarf down my food before leaving them to go coach the senior team. I would rather have spent the evening with them, but I also knew it was good for me to get out, and I wanted to give Samuel time with the girls alone, without me hovering in the background.
“Hey, I’m back. And none of them broke a hip, so no extra work for your colleagues tomorrow.”
“Hey. The girls are asleep. I must admit, I wouldn’t have expected you to get into volunteering.”
I plopped down at the other end of the couch.
“Me neither. Jessica teases me relentlessly. But I just needed to feel useful, you know? I mean, outside of just working and being a mom. Do something nice for other people, something selfless for once. I’ve been stuck in my head for so long and this keeps me grounded.”
“That’s good. I should probably find a hobby myself. Just never had the time between the girls and residency and…”
“And your hysterical wife?”
“Come on, Freya! I would never call you hysterical.”
“Only because it’s medically inaccurate! I was the worst and I know it. I should have gone to therapy when I was like, twelve or something.”
He shrugged, smiling.
“Better late than never? And therapy is no joke. I had a few sessions myself to deal with the divorce and it was hard work.”
“Yeah? Do you want to talk about it? It’s fine if you don’t, and I probably wouldn’t enjoy hearing what you had to say about me, but…”
“I’ll skip the parts about you. It wasn’t much I haven’t said to your face anyway. But I ended up talking a lot about my family. I always felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to do better than Charlie, to never fuck up in any way. You know, to spare our parents, try to make up for all the grief he was causing them. It made me rethink a lot of things, and it made me very aware of how I parent Ivy and Hailey so I don’t end up creating some sort of unhealthy dynamic between them.”
“That’s good. I don’t want them to end up fighting each other.”
Samuel sent me a mischievous grin.
“Or stealing each other’s husbands.”
“Sorry. I went too far.”
“No, it’s OK. Also, you don’t know, they could be stealing each other’s wives!”
“True. Shame on me for assuming.”
“For what it’s worth, I still wish I had tried therapy sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have hurt you like that.”
“Freya, you would have hurt me sooner or later. I fell in love with you when we were fifteen, and you never did.”
“But if I hadn’t been such a mess, we wouldn’t have gotten married in the first place, and then I wouldn’t have…”
“And then I wouldn’t have my daughters. Would you take that away from me?”
“Not when you put it like that, no.”
“Good. See you tomorrow?”
I followed him to the door and he turned to smile at me as I watched him walk to the car. It almost felt like I had my old friend back.
Everything was going great for a while. Samuel was happy, the girls were happy. We settled into a routine.
Samuel would often hang out for a bit in the evenings. We would talk about our day during dinner, but he would wait until the girls were asleep if he needed to vent after a rough day or worried about one of his patients.
Even if the guilt of how I had treated him would never go away, I was happy to be allowed to be there for him now. I knew I hadn’t done a very good job of that before, and if he was giving me a second chance to be his friend, I wanted to do better.
I also really enjoyed his company, almost feeling a bit sad when he had to leave at night.
That evening was really no different from so many others. Not at first. He came in and got swarmed by the girls as usual. He stomped around and made dinosaur noises. I couldn’t help but laugh with them.
We were still joking and laughing during dinner, and I said something funny.
And Samuel sent me a brilliant smile, and my heart skipped a beat and somehow everything changed.
He continued eating and talking to the girls like nothing had happened, like the entire world hadn’t just been completely shattered and rebuilt a million times in the instant of that smile as I struggled to breathe normally, desperately wishing and fearing that he would look at me again.
I was a mess during dinner, but thankfully I had coaching to do that night, so I quickly said goodbye and almost fled out the door, into the cool autumn breeze.
Over the next weeks that first spark turned into a roaring flame and I had no idea what to do with myself. What was happening? Was this what being in love felt like? It was horrible, and yet I didn’t really want it to stop.
Samuel was constantly on my mind, but not like back in university when I just wanted him to notice me. Now, I both obsessed about making him happy and feared that he would realise how I felt.
I lived for his laugh, died a little when he left, cried myself to sleep at night.
Whenever we were together, I found myself stealing glances at him. I tried to act normal, but every time he looked away I was staring at him, at the lines of his face, his body, his hands. Why had I never seen him before? I had always found him attractive, but he wasn’t just sexy as fuck, he was so much more. He was strong and brilliant, a great father. Kind. Funny.
Was this how Samuel had felt all those years? Suffering in silence, painfully in love with someone he could never quite reach?
When he left in the evenings, I would take out one of our old wedding photos and stare at it for hours, imagining what it would be like if we had never gotten divorced. If only I had never fucked up, never hurt him so deeply. If only I had loved him the way he deserved all along. If only…
How had he survived this? How did anyone survive this?
How could I ever have done this to him?
I knew I was torturing myself, but I couldn’t stop.
It was getting colder, the leaves would be turning brown soon. I had started staying out a bit later after coaching, just so I wouldn’t have to face Samuel. Being near him was almost painful, and I didn’t trust myself not to reveal everything, throw myself at him and beg for forgiveness. But sooner or later I had to go home.
Samuel had to leave as soon as I returned that evening, and I immediately took out the wedding picture as usual and put it on the table in front of me.
I had looked at it so many times in the last few months and I still didn’t recognise the two people staring back at me from the photo. It felt like a dream. I could barely remember half the wedding, I had been too anxious. Had I even been happy? Had Samuel been happy when we said the wows? Had he believed in us, believed in me?
I looked at the smile in his eyes, his smooth face. How had it only been seven years since this? We looked so painfully young. So stupid. The whole thing had been a fairytale, dreamt up in our minds with no basis in reality. Samuel hadn’t known me at all, I hadn’t even know myself. And I certainly hadn’t known or even cared who he really was.
And now it was too late. I saw the future stretch out in front of me, years and years of…
I spun around. I hadn’t even heard the door.
“Sorry, I forgot my phone… Why are you looking at that?”
I scrambled to my feet.
“Oh! It’s nothing. I was just…”
My voice faltered.
He hesitated for a second. Then he came closer, and it felt like he was looking right through me. I was frozen in place, had no idea what to say.
“I’ve seen the way you look at me, you know. At first I thought I was imagining things. I figured it couldn’t possibly mean anything. After all, you said you never loved me… But you also never looked at me like this before.”
He put his arms around me.
I saw the question in his eyes and felt the solidity of his body against mine.
Unlike the photo, this Samuel was real, not fiction. And I loved him.
The first kiss was brief, tentative. My nose bumped into his and I felt his lips form a smile against mine. We began kissing with an intensity that had never been there before until we both had to stop for breath.
“Fuck,” he mumbled. “I am probably the biggest idiot who ever lived, but fuck if I don’t want you back.”
Tears started running down my cheeks and Samuel held me close.
“I’m so, so sorry”, I whispered.
He held me until I stopped crying. I wanted to burrow into his chest and never leave.
“Freya, my eyes. Look into my eyes. There. Tell me, what do you want?”
His eyes were almost black in the low light and it felt like I was standing on the edge of the edge, the abyss only a heartbeat away.
There’s a way out of everything, but there’s rarely a way back.
“You, Samuel. I want you back. I love you.”
His lips met mine again and I surrendered myself to him completely.