DINNER WITH SWANS
Using the elevator ride to reapply one final coat of my Lancôme Rouge in Love, I catch Edward’s amused head shake in the mirror. “What?” I challenge, between rolling on the color and smacking my lips together.
He holds up his hands in surrender, too smart to engage the crazy woman.
Just as the doors open on my parents’ floor, I catch Edward running his fingers through his hair when he thinks I’m not looking. I grab his hand and weave our fingers together for both our sakes.
“There they are!” Dad announces, standing in the open doorway at the end of the long hallway. That’s one thing about the heavy security at Sutton Place. There’s simply no way to sneak up on anyone unannounced. A fragrant trail of roasted red meat finds us where we stand and swirls around us, adding a savory promise to Dad’s welcome.
“Hey, Dad,” I greet back, noticing the slightly disheveled tie and end-of-the-day crumple to his suit.
Edward drops my hand as I greet my father with a kiss and hug. “Thanks for coming,” Dad says discreetly into my ear. “Your mother is chomping at the bit to meet Edward.”
I pull back, looking into his gleaming eyes. “Have you been telling tales out of school?”
Dad’s glance shifts over my shoulder, to Edward, and his mouth turns up into an easy grin. “I may have shared a few choice tidbits.”
Edward’s hand appears by my side, and my father clasps it firmly with his own. There’s a touch of a chuckle to Edward’s warm voice. “Hello, Charlie.”
Dad’s smile grows even bigger at Edward’s use of his first name. “Edward, welcome. Come in, come in, you two.”
Edward guides me inside with his hand at the small of my back—his hand and the box of pralines, that is—which he is clearly saving for Mom.
“What’s your drink, son?” Dad asks Edward, who glances at the glass of amber liquid in my father’s hand.
“Oh, uh, normally vodka, but I’ll join you in whatever you’re drinking.”
“Jameson, rocks?” he asks, lifting his glass in illustration.
“Sure,” Edward agrees.
“Martini for you, Bells?”
“Why don’t you take Edward in while I get the drinks?”
“Hey, Mom!” Isabella calls across to her mother.
I’m eager to meet the other half of the Isabella Marie Swan Manufacturing Team, but facing the open oven door, Mrs. Swan doesn’t give away many clues as to their resemblance. A quick respectful perusal of Mother Swan’s back reveals a trim, athletic build, though a few inches shorter than Isabella, well-tended shoulder-length brown (or successfully color-treated) hair, and a tendency toward tasteful clothing that manages not to be stodgy.
Mrs. Swan turns around, clearly startled, barely managing the heavy roasting pan in her gloved hands. “Oh, Bella! Hi!” Her eyes immediately move to take me in, and she blanches and sputters, “Oh dear, hello, oh sorry, my hands are full…”
“Yes, Mom, we can see that,” Bella answers, amused at her mother’s tongue-tied response.
“Can I help?” I offer lamely, taking in her time-softened features.
“Oh, maybe just shut the oven for me? Thank you.”
She sets the pan down onto the granite counter and tugs the ties on her apron, tossing it aside. “So good to see you, sweetie,” she says to Isabella, pulling her into a warm embrace. Of course, all I can see is my girlfriend rolling her eyes, so I give her a fortifying wink. Mrs. Swan turns to me and says, “Edward, it’s so nice to have you here.”
I’m able to fill the awkward shake-hands/hug/stand-awkwardly dilemma by extending the box of chocolates across the gap between us. “These are for you. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Oh!” she gushes, her bright blue eyes dancing with girlish delight. “La Maison! Who told you?”
I chuckle at her glee. “Two little birdies, or should I say Swans?”
Mrs. Swan covers her heart with her right hand as if presented with a diamond ring. “Thank you! I love these!” Then, leaning forward conspiratorially, she says, “What say we have a little sample right now?”
“MOM!” Isabella admonishes with a horrified gasp, as I laugh out loud.
Mrs. Swan swipes her hand through the air, as if physically pushing all convention aside. “Oh, Bella. You’re such a rule follower! You know, it’s okay to live a little!” Mrs. Swan winks at me before unsealing the box and offering me a chocolate.
“Ladies first,” I offer.
“Oh, such a gentleman,” Mrs. Swan swoons.
As I lift my praline out of the box, Isabella rolls her eyes at both of us, just as Charlie returns with our drinks.
“To new beginnings,” he toasts. Isabella’s mom grabs her half-empty glass of white wine from the counter and joins in the clinking.
“New beginnings,” Isabella repeats, her smile wide and happy. As I take my first sip of whiskey, I catch the intramarital telepathy that passes between the Swans, that It-appears-we-can-relax-for-the-time-being parental moment.
“Renee, the lamb shanks are like butter. You’ve really outdone yourself this time,” Dad praises.
“I agree, Mrs. Swan. This is delicious. I haven’t had lamb in I-don’t-know-how-long.”
Mom answers. “I’m so glad you like it. Now, Edward, do you think there’s any way you can call me Renee?”
“Sure. Thank you, Renee.”
Mom looks pleased but drops her eyes back to her mashed potatoes while Dad picks up the conversation.
“So, Edward, I understand you went to MIT.”
I give Dad a heated glare. “You understand?” I didn’t tell him, so his “understanding” is tantamount to spying. “Someone’s been hacking into the HR files, Mr. IT,” I goad Edward, remembering how he busted me for the very same move way back when, and I sit back and wait for Indignant Systems Security Man to fire back.
But Edward is entirely unperturbed. In fact, he chuckles and replies, “It’s not called hacking when it’s the CEO, Isabella. It’s called ‘due diligence’.”
Dad half-snorts and responds, “Well, let’s be honest, I wasn’t checking up on you as the CEO. And we fathers like to refer to it as ‘vetting’.”
“Did he just call you ‘Isabella’?” Mom asks.
“Yes, Mom. And Dad, you could’ve just asked.”
“Why?” Dad asks playfully, fixing his stare on Edward. “Is there something shady about getting one’s Master’s in System Design from MIT?”
“No, sir,” Edward answers easily. “That’s not where the skeletons are hiding.”
The wine I’d pulled into my mouth threatens to spew across the table, but thankfully, I grab my napkin in time to save myself from embarrassment and Mom’s white linen tablecloth from ruination.
“Y’okay, sweetheart?” Edward asks, rubbing my back. Mr. Innocent.
“Fine, HONEY.” I stare a second longer than natural so he sees I’ve invoked the title he likes to use when we’re playing in public. As in, This is not a scene, my dear boyfriend. These are my folks. He winks devilishly.
Edward returns to his lamb while Dad artfully switches the topic. “You and Rosalie certainly seemed to present a united front today. How was it when you first presented your idea to her?”
“She was thoroughly supportive, once she found out I wasn’t after her position.”
Edward chuckles. “I probably shouldn’t admit this to you, of all people, but I’m not great at fitting into a box on an organization chart.”
Dad’s smile spans the length of his moustache and then some. “That’s because you don’t really give a hoot what other people think of you.”
“DAD!” I chime in, ready to save my man from character defamation.
But when I see Edward’s response, I realize once again that he doesn’t need my protection. The two men just stare at each other, grinning with the total understanding that comes with absolute self-awareness.
“Edward knows exactly what I mean, Bella. It’s not even close to an insult.”
“No,” Mom confirms, “When your father says that, it’s a compliment. You know what a radical Dad was, back in the day.”
I bury my face in my hands. Good Lord, Mom’s opened the vault within an hour of meeting the guy. I pray for Dad to stop her, but that doesn’t happen, and she proceeds to replay her most embarrassing Young Rebel Charlie Swan stories of senior pranks and outlandish collegiate brushes with authority. Edward chuckles through it all while I moan softly into my palms. As she finally begins to wind down, Edward puts his arm around me. I cautiously lift my eyes to see if it’s safe to come out.
But Mom wasn’t quite done. “See anything familiar, Charlie?”
Dad sits back in his chair and regards Edward, grinning like a proud father. Or more accurately, like a man gazing through the looking glass at a younger version of himself.
“Bella, did Edward happen to mention how impressive he was today?” Dad asks with a note of definite pride.
“Vaguely, but he hasn’t given any details, yet.”
Edward resumes eating, but I can tell he’s warmed by Dad’s praise.
“Well, let me tell you, Bells, he knocked their socks off. It takes a certain combination of charm and cojones to convince a bunch of old dogs they need to learn a new bag of tricks, and this guy pulled it off in spades.”
I chuckle, “Yes, that sounds like Edward.”
Edward looks up at all of us staring at him admiringly, catches Mom’s eye, and shrugs, as if to say, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
She seems to enjoy being pulled into the private moment and beams back at him.
“You should’ve seen Nichols after you left, Edward. He wouldn’t stop singing your praises. And the others quickly followed suit. I’m afraid you’re gonna have the lot of them knocking down your door tomorrow,” Dad chuckled, scooping up a forkful of peas.
“Well, that’s a great day for me, then. I’m glad it was well-received.”
“Extremely,” Dad corrects. “And what you did for Jasper? That was just above and beyond. Classy move, Edward.”
Mom and I both turn questioning eyes to Edward. “Oh yeah?” I ask, “What did you do?”
Edward shrugs again. “I just gave him a little shout-out, that’s all.”
“No, son, don’t diminish it,” Dad starts, his voice serious and rough all of a sudden. Edward drops his hands to his lap and gives over his complete attention.
“You may not know this, but Jasper came roaring up the ranks about five years ago. The kid is damn good at what he does, and he’s universally liked. Doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body.”
“Charles?” Mom interrupts quietly, worried for the turn the conversation seemed to have taken.
Ignoring her concern, Dad continues, “The old guys never really gave him the respect he deserves. They always figured he got where he got because he was dating the boss’s daughter. But it’s not true. I’d have given him a chance regardless, and he made it on his own steam. And today, you helped them see him in a new light by pointing out his strengths.”
Edward appears humbled by Dad’s words and accepts them with a simple man-to-man nod. Not for the first time, I’m overwhelmed by Edward’s generosity toward my ex. Finding his hand resting on his knee, I squeeze his fingers with mine, letting him know how grateful and impressed I am. And clearly, I’m not the only one.
“So, you and Jasper are friends?” Renee questions me.
Isabella and I both guffaw at that. “I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word for it, but we have a decent working relationship.”
Charlie adds, “Don’t think he doesn’t know what you did for him today, Edward.” I reach for my wine glass and Renee thankfully shifts the conversation.
“So, Edward, your folks are coming for a visit this weekend?”
“Yes, they’re coming in on Thursday. Mom loves the opera.”
Renee’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh, they’re going to the opera?” She turns to Charlie and settles a hostile glare upon him that looks like it holds some history.
“Actually, all four of us are going,” Isabella offers, in an attempt to bail out her dad, I think. An attempt which totally backfires.
“You’re going to the opera?” Renee challenges, then appeals to me. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been trying to get ‘this one’ to the opera with me?” she asks, jabbing her thumb in my girlfriend’s direction.
It appears to have been a long time.
“So you’re an opera fan then, Edward?” Charlie asks.
“No, actually. My Mom always used to joke that the opera gene must’ve skipped a generation.”
Now Renee is on the trail, sniffing out the story. “So why do two kids who don’t like opera suddenly take an interest?”
“We thought it would be fun to try something that’s new for both of us and dive in together from a level playing field.”
Charlie and Renee share a knowing grin.
“So what’s this diving entail?” Charlie asks.
“Well, Dad, there’s this thing called the internet, and it has all kinds of neat articles and stuff…”
“Oh lovely, Bella. Nice way to talk to your father.”
“Actually, Isabella, I believe I taught you a thing or two about your browser a few weeks back,” I taunt, causing her cheeks to pink up.
“So, you must be some kind of guru then?” Renee jumps in, missing my innuendo.
“He’s a guru all right.” Isabella retorts, hiding behind her wine glass. I turn an amused gaze her direction and lock onto her insolent glare.
“Anyway,” Renee continues, “I have this problem…”
“Mom!” Isabella snaps out of her defiance to scold her Mom. “Are you really gonna make Edward sing for his supper? Is that any way to treat a dinner guest?”
“Hunh,” Renee answers, a twinge of hurt bleeding into her response, “I guess I thought he was more than just a dinner guest.”
“Well, yeah, I mean—” Isabella backtracks desperately.
Aww, poor baby. I reach over and take Isabella’s hand and soothe both of them with my answer. “No worries. Of course, I’d be more than happy to take a look at your hard drive, Renee. Besides, for this meal, I’d rebuild the whole platform for you!”
“I can only imagine,” Renee says sympathetically. “My daughter isn’t exactly…well…inspired in the kitchen.”
I know my shins might pay for it, but I can’t resist. Studiously ignoring Isabella, I respond, “Oh, Renee, I would have to disagree with you on that one. I can think of several times Bella’s been highly inspired in the kitchen.”
Charlie immediately senses a shift in the atmosphere. Wisely, he turns his knowing grin toward his plate and busies himself with a bite of mashed potatoes.
I fix my devilish smirk on my girlfriend and let her squirm for about ten seconds, during which she does her very best to murder me with her eyes.
Turning back to her parents, I answer, “Well for one thing, she makes one hell of a vegetarian chili.”
So it’s settled. Dad and I are on cleanup duty while Mom and Edward go off and reorganize her files or something. I pull her aside urgently by the elbow as Edward takes his plate into the kitchen. “Mom, you don’t have anything embarrassing on your hard drive, do you?”
“What? What are you asking me, Bella? If I have PORN on my computer? Heavens, no. Just photos, music, word documents and spreadsheets. It’s just…so muddled. I never know where to find anything.”
“Okay then.” Satisfied, I release her.
“Ready, Renee?” Edward flashes his most charming smile at my poor mother.
“The question is, are YOU ready to whip my hard drive into shape?”
Edward’s eyes pop for a second before he regains control. “Let’s do it,” he answers, marching off to her study just behind Mom’s footsteps, but not before turning around to wink at me, the devil.
Of course, Dad’s chosen that moment to look up from scrubbing the roasting pan and he shakes his head.
“I know. He’s out of control,” I offer.
“Really? Seems to me he’s perfectly self-contained,” he retorts. “Maybe it’s just that he doesn’t let other people control him.
Understatement of the century. I’m not sure how to respond to that, so I busy myself at the counter behind him with the challenge of matching leftovers to appropriately-sized containers that also have corresponding lids.
“Bells?” His tone has shifted into something far less playful, and I feel his touch on my shoulder.
I twist around and lean back against the counter, holding the square blue plastic lid in my hand like a shield. I love my father dearly, in large part because he rarely intrudes in my personal life. But on those rare occasions he feels compelled to do so, this is exactly how his expression reads. He’s shed his jacket and his sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, and he’s leaning back against the sink, mirroring my pose. Our long legs nearly knock together in the brief space between us.
“Yes?” My voice shakes with anxiety. It’s no secret to anyone that I care deeply about his opinion of me and my choices. Mom and I don’t always come at problems from the same perspective, and I can usually handle myself if she doesn’t always approve. But it’s different with Dad, and he’s never taken advantage of the hold he has over me.
“I have to admit, when Jasper approached me at the ball and told me you’d dumped him, I was worried.”
I drop my eyes to his chest and work to hold myself together.
“All those years you’d been together…” Now it’s his turn to look away and choke back his emotions.
“Dad,” I begin softly.
“May I finish please?”
“All those years, and not one single day did you ever look anywhere near as happy as you do since you met Edward.”
I lift my eyes and through the blur of my tears, I find Dad’s watery eyes trained on my face.
“Bella, I cannot imagine the courage you must’ve summoned to make the monumental decision to leave Jasper, especially with your mother and I promoting the two of you as if you were the next…well…us,” he admits with grave distress. “And I just want to say how sorry I am that we almost caused you to choose something that was clearly the wrong path for you, and how grateful I am for your maturity and presence of mind to realize it before it was too late.”
With that, the dam bursts and I push forward into my father’s arms. He encircles me and holds me tightly, murmuring words of apology into my hair and swaying us gently side to side. His white shirt becomes transparent as my tears and sniffles seep onto his chest. I’ve just about got myself back under control when he adds, “I’m so very proud of you.”
“Here it is, the bane of my existence,” Renee says, pointing an accusing finger at a semi-outdated PC.
I pull out the desk chair and gesture for her to take a seat. “ME?” she protests vehemently, as if I’d just asked her to walk over a mile of hot coals.
I have to laugh at the Swan spirit, clearly a trait Isabella has inherited from both sides of the family.
“Yes, you,” I answer gently.
“Hmm,” she objects. “But you could fix it so much quicker!”
“No argument there, but I’ve always found that people retain the instruction so much better if they’re actually the ones doing the work while I provide the instruction.”
“So you like to boss people around then?” she huffs playfully, pulling up the seat.
Oh, Renee. You really have no idea.
“I like to view it as unlocking the hidden potential in those around me.”
Renee smiles up at me. “Is that what you’re doing for my daughter then, Edward?”
I fold my arms and lean on the edge of the desk, taking in her wise eyes. “That’s what we do for each other, Renee.”
She holds my gaze for a bit longer, then, seemingly satisfied, she clicks open a file. Directing my eyes to the screen, she says, “Here’s a good example of the product of a scattered brain.”
I lean in, pressing my tie back against my chest.
“For goodness sakes, Edward, why don’t you take off your jacket and tie and relax?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” I chuckle, pulling off the constraining jacket and unknotting the tie I’d been locked into since 7 am.
“Better?” she smiles.
“Okay, genius. Back to work.”
“Aha! So that’s where Isabella learned to crack the whip.”
Renee’s laugh builds into a warm, rolling happy sound. “Somehow I’m just not buying the whipped boyfriend routine with you, Edward.”
Busted, a little bit. I scrunch my face and scratch at my head. “No?”
“Sorry, no. I know that type. And trust me, it doesn’t …compute… with a man like you,” she says, proud of her pun.
I think I’m a little afraid to hear her assessment of what kind of man I am.
“Okay, Renee. I think you’re stalling here. Let’s get you refocused on this godawful mess.”
“Fine, Edward,” she laughs and turns back to the screen. “But just so you know, you just proved my point.”
I find myself smiling through most of the next forty-five minutes we spend together. Renee is engaging and bright and not afraid to admit where she lacks the skill to accomplish what she sets out to do.
“You know, I keep saying I’m going to take a class in Photoshop and then I just let other things push it down to the bottom of my to-do list.”
“Why don’t I spend a bit of time with you next time we get together and give you a little tutorial on the basics, and then the rest should be intuitive for you?”
“That would be amazing, Edward. Thank you,” she says, clicking on a folder labeled “Old Photos”.
“Yeah, see that’s just not a very helpful name,” I start to explain, but all bets are off once she opens the folder. There, arrayed before me, is Isabella’s entire childhood. Springing to life in maddeningly random chaos, yet spectacular nonetheless. I slide closer to the monitor and drink in the scenery.
Isabella’s class photos from elementary school, always the tall girl in the back row.
Young mother Renee with baby Isabella, posed alone and with other mother/child combinations at playgrounds and around birthday cakes.
A field trip to the Central Park Zoo with a first- or second-grade class, Isabella posed with giraffes and monkeys.
A skinny—dare I say, scrawny—toddler Isabella, perched atop the broad shoulders of her father, his ever-present moustache lifted in a joyful smile despite the cone of cotton candy dipping into his hair.
Senior prom, an ungainly corsage pinned to her chest and a dirty-blonde-haired boy at least six inches shorter who looks like he’s just won the lottery. I want to punch him in the nose.
And poking out from below her dark red floor-length gown…
“Oh my god, is that a cast?”
Renee giggles behind me, and I realize I’ve been photo-surfing for at least ten minutes.
“Yes. Poor Bella,” Renee recalls. “She wasn’t always the vision of grace you see before you today.”
“That must’ve sucked to have to wear a cast to prom. Oops, sorry about my language.”
Renee cuffs me in the arm. “Puh-leez.”
My eyes are still riveted to the screen, and now I’ve taken control of the mouse and there’s no pretense that we’re doing anything other than giving Edward the grand tour of the childhood of Isabella Swan.
The next roll of the mouse reveals the photo of the three of them out on the boat, the sole picture Isabella chose to display. “Oh, I love this one,” I comment without giving a second thought to it.
“You’ve seen that before?” Renee asks, surprised.
“Yes, the night we moved her things from Jasper’s back to our place.”
“Your place?” she queries thoughtfully. “As in, plural?”
“Yeah,” I repeat absently. I sense the shift of her weight back into her chair and I turn to regard Renee.
She’s fixed me with an intense stare, as if she can read every thought I’ve ever had or ever will have regarding her daughter. I make a conscious effort to only think the purest thoughts, like the speeder who slams on the brakes at seeing the policeman at the side of the road.
It’s wasted effort, though. He’s already captured you with his radar 500 feet back.
“They really said, ‘We’re wet’?” I lean forward to challenge my father.
With a cringe, he nods. “They were eating out of the palm of his hand, Bella.”
It’s impossible not to relive the joys of being hand-fed by Edward, naked and on my knees at his feet. I feel the hot wave of a blush and I pray my dad can’t read me.
He shakes his head with a bit of awe. “I can’t wait to see where he’ll take this initiative. You know they call our floor ‘Deadwood Gulch,’ right?”
I smile, giving myself away. “I don’t think they’re referring to you, Dad.”
“Oh sure they are. But that’s okay. Your Edward just may have breathed new life into everyone today. You know a little empowerment can go a very long way.”
I suddenly feel like one of the steamy sealed containers sitting between us on the table, bursting with pride and not sure at all that my lid won’t just pop off at any moment.
Luckily, before my fear gets tested, Edward and Mom come sauntering in from her office. His suit jacket is hooked on his finger and resting over his back, and his tie hangs straight down on either side of his unbuttoned collar. I look back and forth between the matching pair of wide grins on their faces.
Mom steps behind Dad and puts her hands on his shoulders. “Oh, I feel so much better!”
Edward covers his mouth with the back of his hand as my eyes grow wider.
Dad turns around and grins with amusement when he sees the flush in her face. “What’d I tell you, Bells?” he teases.
As if I required yet another demonstration. And by the way, Dad, thank you for not saying, She’s wet.
I stand and lift the leftovers. “Come on Maharishi, it’s been a long day.”
“Are those for us?” he brightens further, causing Mom to gush. Nauseating.
“Say ‘Good night, Gracie,’” I instruct him, stepping over to thank my mother for the delicious meal while he and Dad say their goodbyes amidst back slapping and manly grunts of mutual admiration.
Mom pulls me and the warm food into a close hug. With her lips close to my ear, she says loudly enough for only me to hear, “I’m so happy for you, Bella. He’s just all kinds of wonderful.”
My parents stand together in the doorway, waving us off until the elevator comes to claim us. The doors open and Edward guides me inside, placing one hand at my back and relieving me of the plasticware with the other.
“Hungry?” I giggle, not putting it past him to be ready for a midnight snack at 9:30.
“Starving,” he answers, flattening me into the wall and pressing his hard body against me.
“Please don’t tell me being with my mom has made you horny.”
He chuckles. “No, though she is pretty great. I think it was seeing you in your prom gown that did it.”
“Oh hell no, she didn’t. Why that sneaky—”
His lips cover mine and swallow down whatever capacity I had for rational thought.